SPOKANE, Wash. — It has been a long wait for No. 4 seed Gonzaga to get to host women's NCAA Tournament games again.

After rattling off 23 straight regular season wins, 21 by double figures, and maintaining a perfect regular season conference record there seemed to be little doubt the Zags would get the opportunity to host.

An unexpected 67-66 loss to Portland in the WCC tournament put having that home court advantage in doubt.

“That team out there against Portland isn’t the team we are now, and it wasn’t the team we have been. I think it was definitely an outlier for us,” Gonzaga's Eliza Hollingsworth said.

Despite a little bit of uncertainty going into the tournament selections, Gonzaga earned that desired home court advantage for the first time in 11 years and will face 13th-seeded UC Irvine in the first round on Saturday.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 5 seed Utah will face 12th-seeded South Dakota State.

UC Irvine is back in the tournament for the first time since 1995, anchored by a defense that allows just 55 points per game. The Bulldogs score 81.2 points per game (10th in the nation) and have outscored opponents by a staggering 21.2 points per game.

“They don’t have a lot of weaknesses that’s for sure, a lot is going to have to go right for us,” UC Irvine coach Tamara Inoue said. “We’re not the biggest or the tallest out there but we’ve got that blue-collar work ethic and we won’t step down to anybody.”

Gonzaga will look to erase the memory of that Portland loss, while the Anteaters hope to ride the momentum of a Big West conference championship win, 53-39 over UC Davis.

“You can’t have lapses in the big moments,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. “So, we’re going to do our best to not have a repeat of that ever again, but certainly not tomorrow. I’m excited for the opportunity in front of our team, and I’m looking forward to what we can put together against Irvine tomorrow.”

Utah just missed out on the opportunity to potentially host, but a late season home loss to Washington and getting knocked out by UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals ended those hopes for the Utes.

“Across the country there’s no dispute that it (the Pac-12) is the toughest conference top to bottom,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “And it kind of hurt everyone’s seeding because we all beat the crap out of each other for two months. Every weekend in the Pac-12 you’re playing an NCAA-tournament caliber game, every single game is hard. We’re battle-tested and ready.”

South Dakota State won't be an easy task. The Jackrabbits have 21 straight games since losing to Gonzaga and Creighton in December. The Jackrabbits are making their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the last time they were a twelve seed they knocked off 5th-seeded Miami in the 2016 tournament.

“I always say a team that knows who they are is hard to beat, and they definitely know who they are. They’ve got a few players who could play anywhere, they play the same no matter the score,” said Roberts. “We know we have our hands full, that five and twelve seed mean nothing.”

The Jackrabbits are led by Summit League player of the Year Brooklyn Meyer who averages 17 points per game, and they are no stranger to the tournament.

“This is our 12th run to this tournament, and it’s special every time we get here but we want to continue to find ways to win games here and just grow as a program,” South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston said. “We want to be thought of as a team that advances in this tournament, and we get a chance to do that.”

SDSU will have Alissa Pili to worry about. Pili is averaging 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 54.8% from the field. Pili was named third-team All-American along with All-Pac 12 honors.

“There’s few things she can’t do,” Johnston. “We can’t let her get comfortable, and we have to focus on doing that without forgetting about all of their other really good players.”


FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.