March 30, 2024 

How the Texas defense stifled Gonzaga to earn a trip to the Elite Eight

Plus, how Gonzaga found its joy in the postseason

PORTLAND, Ore. — Texas head coach Vic Schaefer beamed like a child just given candy as he spoke to the media after his Longhorns defeated Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

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“I am so proud of this group, their effort, their intensity, their focus, their intentionality defensively, attention to detail. Just off the chart,” he said in his opening statement.


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It is understandable why Schaefer — known throughout his long career for coaching defense — was so proud of his team. The Longhorns held Gonzaga to its lowest 3-point shooting percentage of the season. The Bulldogs shoot 39.6% from outside on the season, often making double-digit threes in a game. But in the Sweet 16, they hit only four on abysmal 18.2% shooting. Even some quality open shots they would usually hit simply were not falling.

“It’s pretty incredible to think that they went out and held them to 4-for-22 from the 3-point line,” Schaefer said. “Contesting everything. It’s not like they missed them. They contested all of them. Our communication was on point.”

Gonzaga wasn’t able to hit 2-point shots, either, and it certainly couldn’t find any sort of space or scoring in the paint. It shot only 27% from the field and had 18 points in the paint to Texas’ 36.

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Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim tries to score on Texas’ Ndjakalenga Mwenentanda during a Sweet 16 game at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 29, 2024. (Photo credit Lydia Ely | The Next)

Yvonne Ejim, one of Gonzaga’s star players and certainly its best in the post, was frustrated throughout the night because she couldn’t get touches in the paint. She was held to 14 points but was still the Bulldogs’ top scorer on the night. Sisters Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong were both held to single digits.

Texas never allowed Gonzaga to find an offensive flow, and it showed in the box score.


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Shaylee Gonzales steps up

Texas could have been in trouble when its fantastic freshman Madison Booker, who shoulders a lot of scoring responsibility and the point guard duties, got in early foul trouble. Instead, the Longhorns built a 19-point lead.

A huge reason Texas was able to play so well with the Big 12 Freshman of the Year on the bench was its graduate student leader, Shaylee Gonzales. The 5’10 guard played the point at BYU during her first three college seasons, so when Booker went out, Schaefer knew who he could go to.

“Shaylee moves over and takes over the point and just plays spectacular. Runs our team,” Schaefer said of his fifth-year senior’s performance.

Gonzales scored an efficient 15 points, hit big buckets when Gonzaga started to go on runs, pulled down three rebounds, and dished out four assists while committing zero turnovers. She also played all 40 minutes.

“Just playing her guts out. Absolutely just an incredible young lady and an incredible basketball player. She’s done it for us the two years she’s been with us. … She did a heck of a job tonight,” Schaefer added.

Texas' <a rel=
Texas’ Aaliyah Moore (23) high-fives teammate Shaylee Gonzales during a Sweet 16 game against Gonzaga at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 29, 2024. (Photo credit Lydia Ely | The Next)

According to guard Shay Holle — another player who came up with big buckets to open up that 19-point lead — what makes Gonzales special is that she doesn’t care about the credit. She will do whatever it takes for her team to win.

“We all know she deserves everything that comes her way and more. Being her teammate is a blessing for sure,” Holle said postgame about her older teammate. “She helps us every single day on the court [and] off the court. It’s nice having a ‘grandma’ around taking care of us. And she definitely did that tonight.”


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Bench production

Texas also relied on some young players who haven’t played very many minutes in big or close games. 

Freshman guard Gisella Maul played nearly 10 minutes to help fill in for Booker. Sophomore forward Amina Muhammad played 14 minutes and contributed six points. Sophomore guard Ndjakalenga Mwenentanda played six minutes and pulled in three important rebounds. Senior forward Khadija Faye also had eight points and two steals in 15 minutes.

“I thought we got great bench play tonight,” Schaefer said. “One of our signature things that we talk about after the game is, how is your continuity through substitution? I thought [Faye] and Amina really gave us some good minutes inside. [Mwenentanda] and [Maul] came off the bench, young kids that haven’t played, obviously, in this moment very much, [and] did a good job.”

Aaliyah Moore was Texas’ leading scorer on the night with 16 points. She also completed the double-double with 10 rebounds and dished six assists. However, she gave her bench lots of credit.

“I think they were ready when their name was called tonight, which we need from them every night. It goes to show how people might say we don’t have a deep bench, but we really do. I’m extremely proud of them,” Moore said postgame.

Holle added, “We talk all the time about how it takes all of us to get where we are right now. We have all the confidence right now in each and every player on our team because we see the work they put in day in, day out. They’ve been doing the prep. That’s why they’re ready in moments like this.”


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Injuries

The game ended in heartbreaking fashion as Gonzaga forward Eliza Hollingsworth went down with less than 30 seconds to play, screaming in pain. It took several minutes for her coach, the training staff and a family member who came out to comfort her to help her off the court. She put no weight on her left leg and was taken to the hospital.

After the game, head coach Lisa Fortier confirmed that Hollingsworth had had X-rays done and her ankle was not broken, as Gonzaga had initially feared. Fortier said Hollingsworth was in a boot but going to be okay. It was “a bummer of a way to finish a bummer of a game,” as Fortier put it.

Texas had some injury issues, too. Forward Taylor Jones was assumed to be available but played no minutes. Schaefer said postgame that Jones was in concussion protocol: “She didn’t get through yesterday, so … she was not available.”


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Gonzaga finds joy in the journey

As Gonzaga stepped to the free-throw line in the final seconds of the game, Brynna Maxwell and Kaylynne Truong could be seen embracing at center court. It was both a sorrowful and a grateful moment.

As Texas dribbled out the final seconds, the five Zags on the court gathered in a circle for one big hug. All of the Bulldogs players continued to hug teammates as they met at their bench before taking part in the handshake line.

Gonzaga knew this was far from its best performance, but it was proud of what it had accomplished and joyful for the experience.

“Today wasn’t our best day. It wasn’t an indicator of the season that we had,” Fortier said. “Coaching this team has been one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life, actually, especially the last couple [of] weeks. They’ve just been such a joy.”

That joy was very purposeful, according to Fortier. “I think the best thing about being here was how much fun we had,” she said. “Honestly, from the time we lost against Portland [in the West Coast Conference Tournament] until now has been the most fun I’ve had all year. It was more fun than beating Stanford and doing that. [It was the] most fun I’ve had in a lot of years because I think we all tried to be present [and] enjoy it. …

“We enjoyed playing basketball. We enjoyed hosting last week. I think that’s what we need to just continue to remind ourselves. As much as we want to be the team that gets there all the time, we also definitely don’t want to be the team that gets there and doesn’t have fun doing it.”

This Gonzaga team won’t soon forget taking the program to its first Sweet 16 since 2015.

“I think this is the most connected team I’ve ever been on. I just love how we play for each other, how we care for each other on and off the court. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Just to make [the first] Sweet 16 since 2015 for Gonzaga, it’s very special for me,” Kaylynne Truong told reporters postgame.

“If anything, it just shows how much we’re growing, how much better we’re getting each year,” Ejim said. “This team was super special. I think we did a lot this year. I think that’s just the standard that we want to keep ourselves at. … I think it shows a little bit of what we’re capable of, where we want to go, and the path that we can really [take].”

Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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