Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier says it all the time: “Our offense starts with our defense.”
Often that means shutting down the other team’s best player. It’s a thankless task – unless you’re senior guard Emma Stach, who wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like the challenge,” she says with a smile. “To keep them below their average, to make life difficult for them.”
Stach has been doing that for four seasons at GU, with 116 games and 79 starts going into Saturday’s home game against Santa Clara.
Since her sophomore year in 2015-16 she’s been the glue that’s held GU’s defense together, with a high-energy, deny-the-ball attitude that’s seldom reflected on the stat sheet.
“Knowing that the coaches trust me, that means a lot,” Stach said this week before practice at the Kennel.
If trust is a two-way street, the path began years ago in Germany, where Stach (pronounced “Shtah”) first picked up a basketball at age 6 and soon was a rising star in the national league.
Seeking better competition and a college education in the vastness of the United States, Stach was pointed toward Gonzaga by fellow German Sunny Greinacher, who already was a star with the Zags in 2013.
Stach took her official visit that year and “fell in love” with the GU campus and the family atmosphere in the locker room.
The deal-clincher came at the Kennel, where 5,000 fans cheered on the Zags to a win over BYU. Stach shakes her head at the memory.
“In Germany we had 800 fans at the most, so seeing that many was huge,” Stach said.
Stach hit the floor running in Fortier’s first year as head coach, coming off the bench as a true freshman and appearing in all 34 games.
That first year is still Stach’s favorite. With Greinacher leading the way, GU made it all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags lost that game to Tennessee, but Stach still marvels at the crowd at the Spokane Arena, the biggest she’s ever seen as a player.
With the graduation of Keani Albanez, Stach found the spotlight as a sophomore and started 31 out of 33 games.
Usually a shooting guard, she also grew into the role of a combo guard and gained confidence with her ball-handling.
Statistically, it was her best season as a Zag, with 7.3 points a game and 40.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. However, injuries doomed GU to a fifth-place finish in the West Coast Conference and left them out of the NCAA field.
Redemption came at last year’s WCC tournament in Las Vegas, where GU returned to the NCAAs and Stach started all but one of 33 games. Along the way, she averaged 5.8 points, and her 37.6 percent shooting from long range was the best among the GU starters.
Those numbers don’t do justice to Stach’s contribution at the other end. When the other team’s best player can’t get the ball, their stats invariably suffer.
Last year, GU opponents shot just 36.4 percent from the field and an abysmal 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Perhaps more telling, they had just 367 assists in 33 games – a tribute to the chaos created by Stach and her teammates. It was almost as if Stach, a psychology major, was inside her opponent’s head.
This year, the team’s lone senior, after a knee injury ended Emma Wolfram’s GU career in November, has been tasked by Fortier with becoming a little more reckless on defense.
“We’ve challenged her to step out of her comfort zone,” Fortier said.
That wasn’t the idea behind Stach’s headfirst collision in December that cost her two games because of concussion protocols. However, she hasn’t missed a beat in WCC play, starting all seven games while shooting 43 percent and averaging almost seven points.
With her GU career down to a handful of games, Stach wants to create a few more memories, including another run at the NCAAs.
“When I was a freshman and a sophomore, they told me that the years would go by fast, and it’s true,” said Stach, who plans to play professionally for as long as she can.
And create a little more chaos for her opponents.
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