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WCC women’s preview: Gonzaga still the top dog entering league play

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 26, 2017, 7:53 p.m.

Head coach Lisa Fortier and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 7-4 entering the start of West Coast Conference play. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Head coach Lisa Fortier and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 7-4 entering the start of West Coast Conference play. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Eleven games into the season, so much has changed for the Gonzaga women – and so little.

Despite key injuries and the inexperience of youth, the Bulldogs are back where they started, favorites to repeat as West Coast Conference champions.

GU began the season at the top, earning the preseason No. 1 nod from WCC coaches. Since then, the Bulldogs have done nothing to change anyone’s minds.

The most convincing proof came in the nonconference finale last week against Western Illinois. With starting guard Emma Stach out with a concussion and leading scorer Jill Barta still not 100 percent, the Bulldogs took a runaway 15-point win over the Leathernecks.

“That was a significant win – you don’t want to go into conference play with a loss,” said coach Lisa Fortier, whose team is 7-4 with a No. 82 ranking in RPI going into the WCC opener Thursday night at Pacific.

The Tigers (5-5) will be waiting with a fast-paced attack that’s produced 80-plus points in five games. Two days later Santa Clara will try to zone the Zags.

“Everybody is looking for us, and nobody wants to play the Zags without their best effort,” Fortier said.

However, it will take a lot to beat the Zags, who have the best inside game in the WCC with Barta (who’s averaging 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds), forward Zykera Rice (13.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and versatile wing Chandler Smith (11.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

“Defense and rebounds are our best offense,” Rice said after GU outrebounded Western Illinois 61 to 42.

Against a difficult schedule, GU is a plus-six on the boards and is holding opponents to 38 percent shooting (29 percent from three.)

Those numbers should only get better against a conference that ranks 18th in RPI - although Saint Mary’s (7-4) currently sits at 71st in RPI and Loyola Marymount (6-3) is a surprising 151st.

GU’s biggest problem so far is 3-point shooting; at 23.2 percent, GU ranks last in the WCC and sixth-worst in the nation out of 345 teams.

“That’s something our team hasn’t developed yet,” said Barta, the lone exception. She’s hitting at 42 percent from long range while Smith is at 32 percent. The rest of the Bulldogs are shooting 14.5 percent.

“We hope that we have some players who have some diversity in their game, that we have players who can score from outside and inside in different ways,” Fortier said.

Among the regulars, point guard Laura Stockton (6.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) has risen to the occasion in directing the offense despite shoulder and nose injuries; and backup Jessie Loera has been solid in relief.

Among the newcomers, former Okanogan star Jill Townsend (4.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) has shown versatility with her drive game and an uncommon toughness for a true freshman. She’s also shooting 43 percent from the field.

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