Gonzaga women’s basketball overcame long odds en route to another successful season

Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier talks with players during a timeout at the West Coast Conference Tournament championship March 6 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The Gonzaga women overachieved again this year, and probably will need to do it again next season.

Despite losing two key players to graduation and dealing with injuries for much of the season, GU went 27-6. The Zags also won the West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles for the second year in a row.

Zags fans are accustomed to this kind of success but probably don’t appreciate the obstacles coach Lisa Fortier, her staff and players overcame to get there.

“There were some people that we know had some question marks about this group, but it’s a season that we’re proud of,” Fortier said.

“We had a lot of people get better.”

They had to. After losing the inside presence of Kiara Kudron and Elle Tinkle, the Zags got big years from former backups Chandler Smith (9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and loads of versatility) and Zykera Rice (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg).

Crises came in waves: Senior post Emma Wolfram was lost for the season before it began. Late in the nonconference season, point guard Laura Stockton suffered a shoulder injury and broken nose, and Jill Barta missed all or part of three games with a sprained ankle.

Despite that, the Zags gutted out a tough win at Washington State, then lost at home to UNLV before closing out nonconference play with a big win over Western Illinois.

That built momentum for the WCC season, and GU capitalized by finishing four games ahead of the field at 17-1.

The Zags also made a heavy investment in the future – fortuitously, as it turned out.

From the first game of the season, Fortier pushed minutes on freshmen twin forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, who responded with solid defense and improving offense as they adjusted to the speed of the college game.

“I think they grew in confidence,” Fortier said. “It takes a certain kind of mentality for a freshman to make an impact … but they developed more of an understanding as post players.”

Combining for 29 minutes per game, they should see even more playing time after WCC Player of the Year Barta announced last week she is forgoing her final year of eligibility.

Barta not only averaged 18.8 points and 8.3 rebounds; along with senior Emma Stach, she was GU’s top 3-point shooter.

Better long-range shooting will be a major goal – next year’s returnees were a combined 24.3 percent this season.

“They need to get better in game situations,” said Fortier, recalling how well most of her players shoot the long ball in practice.

“Get your butt in the gym, that’s how you get better.”

In the backcourt, Fortier expects more chances to put point guards Stockton and Jessie Loera on the court at the same time.

Fortier also hopes to see a bigger contribution from shooting guard Katie Campbell.

More help is on the way from a pair of versatile freshmen, guard Kylee Griffen of Marysville, Washington; and forward Melody Kempton of Post Falls, the Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year.