NCAAW: How far will No. 23 Gonzaga, and the WCC, go this season after nearly beating top teams?

Jill Townsend and the Gonzaga women's basketball team are on the rise. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Jill Townsend and the Gonzaga women's basketball team are on the rise. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Welcome back to the party, Gonzaga.

It’s incredibly unusual for a team to break into the AP Top 25 poll after a loss, yet that’s exactly how the mid-major Bulldogs made their entrance this week.

Gonzaga took No. 3 Stanford to overtime on Sunday, but fell 76-70 when Stanford went on a 6-0 run midway through the extra period. The Cardinal held their ranking and the Bulldogs (2-1) jumped to No. 23 after receiving votes in the first couple weeks.

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Four Bulldogs were in double figures, led by Jill Townsend’s 18 points, though she fouled out in overtime. And it begs the question, what if Gonzaga had won? How far would they be up the rankings then? The Bulldogs were so close to another upset — they defeated then-No. 8 Stanford this time last season — and head coach Lisa Fortier acknowledged that.

“These games are harder,” Fortier told the Spokesman Review on Monday. “When you play a top team and get blown out, at the end of the day you can say ‘we’re not as good as they are.’

“But losing by a few… you second-guess everything, and so do the players,” Fortier said. “Looking back, we didn’t play that well. To think we almost beat Stanford and we didn’t play that well.”

Think about when they do play that well.

Voting for the AP poll in the preseason and early weeks can be a crap shoot. It’s based off of guesses at how new players will fit in, which is how Gonzaga dropped from its 2018-19 final mark. The Bulldogs finished 29-5 and stayed in the rankings all season after the win against Stanford. They lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Pac-12 power Oregon State.

That game was the last for starters Zykera Rice, Laura Stockton and Chandler Smith. Unlike Notre Dame, which kept its ranking despite losing five starters who were all drafted in the WNBA, Gonzaga was dropped in the eyes of voters. (And Notre Dame dropped out this week after back-to-back losses, a fair move to everyone else.)

The Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with one of the top teams, featuring one of the top recruiting classes, in the country and the statistics for that contest are fairly even. Gonzaga is in the top 50 of scoring margin, winning by an average 20.3 points per game (80.0-59.7).

How far can Gonzaga rise? The West Coast Conference has three potential spoilers for the Power Five conferences. Gonzaga will have to compete inside its own league for an automatic berth primarily with BYU, last season’s WCC tournament champion, and Pacific, which gave No. 7 Oregon State a close call during the Preseason WNIT last week. That power inside the conference schedule will not only boost the Bulldogs’ strength of schedule, but will ready them for the tournament.

Penn State’s highly improbable loss

There’s always a chance, La Salle. Penn State (2-2) led by 20 points, 41-21, at halftime and 18 going into the final quarter but managed to lose the game, 69-67, in front of the home crowd.

According to ESPN, there was a 0.4 percent chance of that happening.

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La Salle (3-1) shot 61.1 percent in the final quarter overall, including 75 percent from 3-point range, and scored 33 points to take the lead with nine seconds remaining.

“I think we became undisciplined and we became complacent,” Penn State junior guard Kamaria McDaniel said, via the Daily Collegian. “When you do those two things, there’s not going to be a very good result.”

Penn State had been undefeated in five games against La Salle going into the contest. Two of those were held in Happy Valley and the Lions won by an average 18.5 points. The series began in 1981; they hadn’t met since 2000.

In-state bragging rights

It’s a notable week for a handful of teams during in-state games. Ohio beat Ohio State, 74-68, for the first time in school history. They met 12 times previously and not since 2004.

Georgia Tech got its first win against Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens and it was a lopsided one at 73-40. The Yellow Jackets (3-0) are 7-35 all-time against Georgia.

Notes from No. 1 Oregon

It’s been rosy for the No. 1 Ducks. Sabrina Ionescu extended her career NCAA triple-double mark to 19 games with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists against Texas Southern. Ruthy Hebard led the team with 31 points and 13 rebounds. She’s averaging 23.7 points and 13.3 rebounds over three games.

Ahead of their first real test this weekend against No. 17 Syracuse, Oregon (3-0) gets Satou Sabally back from her commitment to the German national team. Her ability to draw fouls and capitalize was on display Sunday against Croatia.

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Things are looking good for the future, too. Oregon brought in its first No. 1-ranked recruiting class for 2020, according to ESPN. The five players are all ranked in the top 35 of ESPN’s player rankings.

What to watch this week: USF vs. Baylor

No. 22 South Florida at No. 2 Baylor | Tuesday at 8 p.m. ESPN+

The reigning champion Baylor Bears have had a posh schedule so far with blowout victories over New Hampshire, Grambling State and Houston Baptist. They’ve won by an average 70.7 points per game. Now No. 22 South Florida, which already upset a ranked team this year, is coming to town.

Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey told the Waco Tribune-Herald the Bears were focused on getting better before the Big 12 schedule and not so much on an opponent. But South Florida is a little different.

“It’ll be about us this whole nonconference,” Mulkey said. “But you’ve got to know how good they are. (They have) a lot of international kids. They play in that league with UConn and they’re picked second in that league.”

Baylor is still without preseason All-American Lauren Cox, who is dealing with a stress reaction in her right foot. The team is 69-17 against ranked opponents at home during the Mulkey era. The last loss to a ranked opponent outside of the conference on their home court was in 2013 against No. 1 UConn.

South Florida (4-0) knocked off Texas, then ranked No. 15, during the first week of the season. The Longhorns have since dropped out after 77 consecutive weeks ranked.

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