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Injuries forcing Gonzaga women to rethink rotations ahead of NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Sat., March 16, 2019, 8:33 p.m.

Gonzaga  guard Jessie Loera  shoots against  BYU  during the second half the West Coast Conference Tournament title game  on last Tuesday  at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. BYU won 82-68. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Jessie Loera shoots against BYU during the second half the West Coast Conference Tournament title game on last Tuesday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. BYU won 82-68. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Even with injuries to a pair of key players, the Gonzaga women won’t necessarily be out of their depth in the NCAA Tournament.

They probably won’t complain, however, if their first partner in the Big Dance prefers the waltz to the tango.

Selection Monday is almost here. Fortunately, Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier and her staff have had a few days to make some adjustments.

One day wasn’t enough, and it showed in the Zags’ 82-68 loss to BYU in the West Coast Conference title game.

The apparent loss of Laura Stockton, the conference’s top point guard, and versatile bench player Jill Townsend is problematic.

Stockton is as savvy as they come, a triple threat and consummate ball-handler who makes everyone else better, not to mention her 8.9 points a game.

Townsend is a backup in name only. She averaged 21.7 minutes a game and finished the regular season as the team’s No. 2 scorer with 9.4 ppg.

Both are fearless and hard-driving, and their emotion has helped guide this team to the best regular-season in program history. Their aggressive style will be missed.

But assuming the 28-4 Zags get the No. 5 seed they deserve, a first-round NCAA game on a neutral court is eminently winnable.

Senior Zykera Rice will hold sway in the paint along with the 6-foot-3 Wirth twins, LeeAnne and Jenn.

Chandler Smith and shooting guard Katie Campbell will be joined by point guard Jessie Loera, a starter until sidelined by an early-season concussion.

Then it gets tricky, because the Zags are down to nine healthy players, and two of them have scarcely played.

At the end of most games this season, the “minutes played” column on Gonzaga stat sheet was thing of beauty. Often, seven players would log 20 minutes or more, but seldom more than 30.

“We’ve relied on our depth all season,” said senior guard Smith after the Zags rallied to beat Saint Mary’s in double overtime in the WCC semifinals on Monday.

“People are going to step up like they’ve done all year, so we’re just going to take one play at a time,” Smith said.

Or perhaps one substitution at a time.

Suddenly, depth is an issue, a season-long strength now a weakness. Fortier’s frequent rotations, usually 40 or more per game, must be tweaked and lengthened.

Fitness shouldn’t be a problem. Most players have logged 30 minutes or more on several occasions.

The loss of two experienced ball-handlers puts a heavy burden on Loera, a junior who played 36 minutes against BYU.

The other starting guards, Smith and Campbell, logged 34 and 33, respectively – well above their season averages.

The problem is less severe in the frontcourt, where Rice and the Wirths have rotated all year, but Townsend’s versatility will be sorely missed. A 51 percent shooter (44 percent from 3), she also averaged almost five rebounds and was the team’s No. 2 scorer despite playing just 21 1/2 minutes a game.

Townsend was equally at home coming in for Smith as for one of the post players.

True freshman Melody Kempton of Post Falls (4.2 points per game) has plenty of experience (13.8 minutes per game) and is able to mix it up inside. She averages a team-best rebound every 4 minutes on the court and shoots 44 percent from the field, but hasn’t attempted a 3-point shot all year.

True sophomore guard Louise Forsyth (2.1 pgg) has little experience. She appeared in 13 games last year and 17 this season. If the BYU game is any indication, her minutes will go up this week. After playing a combined 10 minutes in the previous four games, she logged 12 against BYU.

Neither player, however, scored against the Cougars.

The only other eligible player is sophomore Gillian Barfield, who has played 26 minutes all season.

The wild card will be the first-round opponent. The Zags should fear a quicker, guard-heavy team such as BYU, whose quickness often left Rice and the Wirth twins on the perimeter.

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