STANFORD, Calif. – As the Gonzaga women aim for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, what better time than now to find their aim from deep?
In their last 10 games, the Zags are shooting almost 35 percent from beyond the arc. They were even better in the West Coast Conference tournament, hitting almost 40 percent of their long-range shots.
“It’s a confidence booster for sure,” junior wing Chandler Smith said this week as the Zags prepared for Saturday’s first-round NCAA game at Stanford.
“If you see someone else make them, that takes the lid off the basket and gives the whole team a boost,” Smith added.
That lift has come only recently, erasing some tough days for the GU shooters.
On Jan. 12, the Gonzaga women woke up winners again.
The night before, on the road, they’d taken care of Portland by 14 points for their seventh consecutive win.
The news came on the stat sheet, where the Zags were 3 for 19 from beyond the arc, leaving them at 23.4 percent for the year.
Out of 349 teams in Division I, only nine were worse.
With the graduation last year of Makenlee Williams and transfer of Zhane Templeton, 3-point shooting figured to be a concern for the Zags this year.
It quickly became more than that. In the season opener at Colorado State, GU put up 24 long-range shots and made two. Ten days later they were 2 for 18 in an eight-point loss to Belmont at the Play4Kay Showcase in Las Vegas.
It happened again on Dec. 9 in the Kennel. Without Jill Barta and facing a low-RPI UNLV team, the Zags went 3 for 17, the capper coming on Laura Stockton’s 3-point miss at the buzzer.
In one sense, poor shooting already has hurt the Zags in the NCAA Tournament, as wins over UNLV and Belmont surely would have boosted GU’s seed above a 13.
“It was so tough in the beginning of the year,” Smith said. “In practice we’d be hitting shots left and right, and in the games we couldn’t get anything to drop.”
The wins came easier in the WCC, but not the outside shooting.
To their credit, Lisa Fortier and her coaches stuck with the game plan and resisted the urge to scale back the perimeter game.
Keep shooting, the coaches said, and the players did. In only one WCC game – a 73-65 win at Saint Mary’s on Jan. 18 – did the Zags attempt fewer than 10 long-range shots.
The turning point came on Feb. 24 in the Kennel. With the ball and a 1-point lead against San Diego, the Zags were trying to get the ball inside to Barta.
The Toreros took away that option. Just like it did against UNLV, the ball wound up in the hands of Stockton as the shot clock neared zero.
This time, Stockton drilled the shot to give GU a 58-54 win – and some confidence.
Since then, the Zags are one of the better 3-point-shooting teams in the nation, and they may need to rise to that level to beat Stanford.
Fortunately, GU has multiple threats from long range, with Barta (37 percent for the year) and guard Emma Stach (36.3 percent).
“We’re definitely clicking now,” Smith said.
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