Women's basketball: Gonzaga gets Yvonne Ejim back, EWU hits the road and WSU looks for answers

Feb. 14—Bad news for the Gonzaga women's basketball team's opponents this week.

Standout senior forward Yvonne Ejim returns after missing a pair of games last week — two dominating wins by the Zags.

"It's good having Yvonne back," Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. "Hopefully, that'll give us a shot of energy."

It's not like the 17th-ranked Zags have lacked energy, especially in West Coast Conference play. Gonzaga (24-2 overall, 11-0 WCC) visits Saint Mary's at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and is at Pacific at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The Zags handled Saint Mary's 89-60 on Jan. 20 and trounced Pacific 104-39 in arguably their best game of the season.

"I think these teams are really good," Fortier said. "Pacific, I know that game wasn't all that close, but it felt closer than it was the whole time."

Fortier said her team routinely highlights five general areas it needs to improve when they face WCC opponents the second time around.

"I think the team is really digesting those things," Fortier said. "They seem to have a steady resolve to just keep getting better."

Ejim was watching the Zags' scores while playing in Hungary with the Canada Senior National Team.

"I was scoreboard watching," she said. "I wasn't worried because I know how capable my team is, how good they are."

Ejim was named one of 10 semifinalists Wednesday for the 2024 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award.

Deep gets deeper

Gonzaga's bench was deep to begin the season. It got even deeper when Bree Salenbien and Destiny Burton returned the first of the year.

Burton played a combined 30 minutes in the absence last week of Ejim.

"It was a great opportunity for our team to work on things," reserve guard/forward Calli Stokes said. "Me and (Burton) got more time since (Ejim) was gone."

Burton believes the Zags have been playing as well as they have all season in the past month.

"Instead of looking in the near future we're looking in the now, preparing for the next team and making sure that we're dominant toward that team," Burton said. "We're taking everything serious because we have something to prove and we're going to keep proving it until we get there.

"It's hard not having (Yvonne) here because she's the big dog, you know. It's fun seeing the other teammates have to step up and create something in that void she left."

Stokes gave a shout out to her coaches and teammates.

"We're having a lot of fun," she said. "That's a huge part of our success when we are having fun. It's a special group that we have. I'm really blessed to be a part of it."

Burton said the Zags aren't taking anything for granted. Even though they've dominated WCC teams, they're preparing for each opponent as if they're playing a top-ranked team.

"You can have a bad day. Who knows, that team can go off," Burton said. "We know from history that teams like to go off on Gonzaga. So we have to bring our A game. We have to go in focused and with a full head of steam."

On the road

Eastern Washington is still a week out from its rematch with Big Sky-leading Northern Arizona.

The Eagles (19-5, 9-2) visit Idaho State (10-13, 6-6) on Thursday and Weber State (7-18, 4-8) on Saturday.

"Both of these games will be challenges," EWU coach Joddie Gleason said. "Idaho State defends and rebounds exceptionally well. That's the MO of their program and they make you execute offensively."

Gleason and the Eagles are enjoying the journey.

"This is just a really fun team to coach and be around every day," Gleason said. "Our players come in excited, they play with joy and they love each other. That makes our job very easy."

Gleason has been pleased with the Eagles' play since the losses to Northern Arizona and Montana State.

"On the court, they defend and rebound at a really high level," she said. "It's fun to prepare with this group and go into battle.

"They're very locked in on the upcoming weekend. Our players do a nice job of focusing on the game."

Time to rebound

After four straight losses at home, including games against three ranked teams, Washington State (15-10, 4-8) needs to turn things around in a hurry if it hopes to be dancing next month.

Not coincidentally, the four losses have come without perhaps the school's all-time best player, Charlisse Leger-Walker, who was lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL in the Cougars' 85-82 upset of then No. 2-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles.

The Cougars visit Arizona (12-11, 4-7) on Friday and Arizona State (10-14, 2-10) on Sunday. They beat the Arizona schools in the first half of conference play.

WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said the Cougars have taken some extra time off in hopes of getting back on the right track.

"I've liked the response of our team this week," Ethridge said. "We've played pretty well on the road. We're playing an Arizona team that's so dangerous (with) a great home environment. People are desperate right now to find wins ... and that's us in a nutshell. We've got to be unbelievably focused."