Looking for a turning point in Gonzaga’s season?
Oddly enough, it probably turned when Jill Barta turned her ankle in Pullman on Dec. 6.
With their star player hobbled in a game that could go either way, it fell to the rest of the Zags to rise to the occasion.
And they did, gutting out a 64-56 win over Washington State.
Four days later, they thrashed a Western Illinois team that was coming off a big win over Stanford – the same team GU will face in Saturday’s first-round tournament game in the Bay Area.
“We learned a lot about ourselves during that stretch,” said GU coach Lisa Fortier, whose club has won 22 of its last 23 games.
GU dealt with more than the usual number of challenges this season, even before it began.
After graduating starters Kiara Kudron and Elle Tinkle, plus sharpshooters Makenlee Williams and Zhane Templeton, Fortier and her staff needed to role players Chandler Smith and Zykera Rice to step into starting roles.
They also needed help from incoming freshmen Jill Townsend and the Wirth twins, Jenn and LeeAnne.
Inevitably there were growing pains, and they came immediately as GU opened with a thud in the season opener at Colorado State.
“Ugh,” Fortier said recently when asked about that 65-49 loss in Fort Collins.
GU went on to drop games to NCAA-bound Belmont and DePaul in the Play4Kay Showcase in Las Vegas, leading them without a marquee win in the nonconference season and all but forcing them to run the table in the West Coast Conference.
Meanwhile, starting point guard Laura Stockton lost several games to a shoulder injury suffered in Vegas, then was forced to wear a face mask after a breaking her nose in practice in December.
The Zags, however, were prospering in the paint. Rice was averaging 13.6 points and almost seven boards by the time WCC season began in late December.
Smith also provided some much-needed versatility, sometimes playing four positions. Backup point guard Jessie Loera seemed comfortable stepping up while Stockton was on the mend.
The Zags got solid contributions from the Wirth twins and fellow true freshman Townsend, but the offense remained focused on Barta, who averaged 18.8 points and 8.4 rebounds to win WCC Player of the Year, a feat she repeated at the postseason tournament.
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