Gonzaga navigating tough road heading into NCAA Tournament

              FILE - In this March 17, 2017, file photo, Gonzaga's Laura Stockton runs through a drill during a practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Seattle. It's an injury-riddled Gonzaga women's basketball team that heads into the NCAA Tournament. The Zags will be without starting point guard Laura Stockton and key reserve Jill Townsend.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Gonzaga has never faced a more difficult week leading into the NCAA Tournament. For both the team and coach Lisa Fortier.

Instead of celebrating the highest seeding in school history, the Bulldogs have been dealing with sadness off the court and regrouping after two major injuries on the floor.

The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (28-4) will open the NCAA Tournament against 12th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock (21-10) on Saturday in Corvallis, Oregon. When they do, the Bulldogs will be without starting point guard Laura Stockton and key reserve Jill Townsend, who both suffered significant injuries in the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals against Saint Mary’s.

And they’ll be doing so with Fortier still dealing with the death of her brother, Hayden Mispley, due to complications from muscular dystrophy. Mispley was hospitalized on March 12 during the WCC championships game between Gonzaga and BYU. Fortier was informed of her brother’s situation and left the court during the fourth quarter of the loss to the Cougars. Mispley died the next day.

It’s been a lot for the Bulldogs to handle in a short period.

“We had a lot of people reaching out after the injuries on Monday and that was a hard time for our team, and then it was all put in perspective with what happened on Tuesday with it being very public and me being called from the game during actual play,” Fortier said. “Spokane in general is a great community who rallies around people and they rally around our teams. That’s what makes this place special.”

Stockton, the daughter of Gonzaga and NBA great John Stockton, was the top point guard in the conference this season. She will continue to be evaluated for the next couple of weeks. The team said Townsend, the second-leading scorer at 9.4 points per game, had surgery on her lower leg Monday.

Fortier said her goal was to have a nine-player rotation during the season and that depth is now being tested. She expects Jessie Loera, who started 10 games this season, to start in place of Stockton. Loera averaged 8.9 points and four assists per game. Fortier also said Chandler Smith, who has mostly played on the wing, can handle running the Zags’ offense.

“I’m trying to get a nine-player rotation through the season, which is not easy to do, not necessarily because we have to keep the players happy but because they are good enough and deserving of minutes. This will be the first time this year — aside from the BYU game — that we’ve had a shorter roster. We’re going to have to not reinvent ourselves … we can do the things Laura and Jill did for our team with the players we have on this roster.”

Zykera Rice, the only Gonzaga player averaging in double figures at 14.8 points per game, said the Bulldogs are a gritty team.

“We have been ready to fight through adversity this whole season,” Rice said. “The team is still running on all cylinders. We had other people step up.”

The Zags had hoped to finish among the top four seeds and get to play at home in the first two games of the tournament. The loss to BYU basically ended those hopes.

“In a hard week it’s been a little bit of a bright spot that someone is acknowledging the talent and the efforts they’ve put forward all year,” Fortier said.