Basically, the Gonzaga women had a great game Thursday night.
The Bulldogs beat Western Illinois, 80-65, the old-fashioned way; they hit the short jumper, crashed the boards and got to the line.
They also showed some fighting spirit in their last game before West Coast Conference play opens next week. Down by double digits in the first quarter, they quickly turned the tables on a Leathernecks team that was three nights removed from a momentous win at No. 18 Stanford.
“I’m a coach that likes to coach fighters,” Gonzaga’s Lisa Fortier said. “In that first quarter we could have said it is Christmas time let’s just move onto conference season, but we didn’t.”
Instead, GU improved to 7-4 by adapting at both ends of the court. After giving up four 3-pointers in their first six minutes, the Bulldogs went to a stifling 1-2-2 zone.
Failing to hit their own long-range shots against WIU’s unconventional 1-3-1 zone – the Bulldogs were 1-for-17 on the night – they went inside and utterly dominated on the glass, 61 to 42.
They also made a little history, as Jill Barta, Zykera Rice and Chandler Smith all finished with double-doubles, the first time that’s happened for GU since 2004.
“This gives us a lot of confidence,” said Barta, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds despite a lack of practice time in the wake of an ankle injury suffered earlier this month.
After the game, the walking boot was back on her left ankle, but Barta merely shrugged at it after playing a game-high 35 minutes.
“It’s been a tough week of not practicing,” Barta said.
In a further gut-check, GU was without senior guard Emma Stach, who is following concussion protocol. Sophomore Jessie Loera got the start and responded with eight points and four assists.
“I love the way we rallied late in the first quarter, and the next three quarters we kept our foot on the gas pedal,” Fortier said.
The rally began late in the period. Down 23-12 after 7 minutes, GU cut the gap to eight after one quarter. The Bulldogs followed with a remarkable second quarter, highlighted by Smith’s crowd-pleasing rebound, and three-point play that gave GU its first lead of the night, 30-29.
GU outscored the Leathernecks 25-13 in the quarter to take a six-point halftime lead.
Rice scored the first four points of the third quarter for GU’s biggest lead to that point, 46-38. Western Illinois (10-3) pulled within two, but Laura Stockton found Barta for a layup and hit a jumper to push the led back to six.
Meanwhile, WIU went cold from long range and finished 10-for-36.
Up by 10 after three quarters, the Bulldogs maintained at least an eight-point lead in the fourth. Barta provided the biggest highlight, chasing her own missed 3-point shot for a rebound and layin that made it 64-52 early in the quarter.
The double-doubles by Barta, Rice (14 points and 13 rebounds) and Chandler Smith (12 points and 11 rebounds) were the first since three Zags did it in the same game since March 6, 2004, against Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals.
The Zags will carry the momentum of the last two wins into conference season after Christmas. They open at Pacific on Thursday.