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Dave Boling: 'Fearless' Maisie Burnham, Portland women seize historic upset of Gonzaga in WCC title game

Mar. 12—LAS VEGAS — History hates to be ignored.

Clearly, History loves to repeat itself. With a long memory and a stubborn streak, History sometimes is just waiting to deliver a smarmy "I told you so."

It did, emphatically, and perhaps more shockingly than anyone could have expected.

Almost identically to last season, the Portland Pilots upset a ranked Gonzaga club in the title game of the West Coast Conference Tournament on Tuesday afternoon.

The Zags, coming in at 30-2 and ranked 14th in the country, didn't focus on last season's outcome. The logic was that this was a different season and a different team, and thusly irrelevant.

But, astoundingly, Portland not only pulled off the 67-66 upset at Orleans Arena, but in doing so the Pilots reversed and avenged a 90-40 beatdown the Zags had issued the Pilots on Feb. 28 in Spokane.

How much was Tuesday's outcome fueled by the emotions of that 50-point runaway just two weeks ago?

One team highly confident, the other aggrieved. One team feeling the pressure of expectations, the other with nothing to lose.

From the start, GU seemed out of sync. With a flowing and efficient offense and the conference's best player, Yvonne Ejim, GU had been riding a 24-game winning streak.

But almost everything about the Zags' performance was out of character. Leading the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, they made just 5 of 20 (25%) from behind the arc. In contrast, Portland shot 54% from the field and made 7 of 14 3-pointers.

The Zags still had chances but couldn't get a shot to fall in the game's final seconds.

Those without allegiances to these teams, could objectively view the vast emotional extremes, the glory and cruelty and unpredictability of sports. Afterward, Ejim bravely tried to decode the inexplicable, a towel held to her chin as tears threatened.

In contrast, Pilots forward Kennedy Dickie cried with equal emotion at the announcement she was voted the tournament's most outstanding player.

As physical as this game was, and intensely contested over 40 minutes, the real game was played in the players' minds.

As coach Lisa Fortier said, the Zags knew they had an at-large bid locked up based on their success during a long and challenging season.

Portland, meanwhile, knew that nothing but winning the conference tournament would get them to the NCAAs.

Was that pressure playing in the Zags' minds?

"I would like to say, no ... but ..." Fortier said. "Maybe a little bit; hopefully, it was just bad defense and not mental challenges."

Pilots guard Maisie Burnham, a Liberty High (Spangle) graduate, broached the same topic from the other side of the dog. "I think we kind of like the position of being underdogs and proving people wrong. We came into this game saying, 'There's no pressure on us; we can play free and aggressive and how we want to play.' We just came out there fearless."

Portland coach Michael Meek said he has tried to pace the team to peak in March, and schools his players to understand the "hills and valleys in any season."

But reaching the peak after the abyss of a 50-point loss is an incomprehensible climb.

"The biggest thing to be proud of is (that) we all believed in ourselves, and if we kept working together and staying together that we could be here today," Burnham said.

In the aftermath, Fortier said she wanted to avoid burying her players with the typical loss-mitigating cliches. Platitudes are easy but cheap. Instead, she said she mostly talked about how much she loved them.

Meek, too, said that he stressed to his team how much he loved them.

Different locker rooms. Different outcomes. Different kinds of tears.

But the message of shared emotions was the same on either side, and maybe that's the absolute heart of sports at its best — these deeply shared connections.

Those last long after the tears have dried and the final score has been forgotten.