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Gonzaga prepared for Little Rock’s ‘extreme athleticism’ in NCAA Tournament opener

UPDATED: Fri., March 22, 2019, 6:45 p.m.

CORVALLIS, Oregon – Lisa Fortier and her players said all the right things – and then some – Friday about their first-round dance partner, Little Rock.

Gonzaga’s coach complimented the Trojans for what they do well – their closing speed on defense, shot selection and their “extreme athleticism.”

Fortier even praised them for what they don’t do.

The Trojans (21-10) make just 3.2 long-range shots per game, the fifth-lowest mark in Division I.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Fortier.

“They’re disciplined in that,” she said. “Some people have a tough time staying disciplined and playing to their strength all the time, but they know what they’re good at.”

After watching film for the last four days, the Zags also have a good idea of what to expect in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game at Gill Coliseum.

“They’re a pretty athletic team,” Gonzaga forward Zykera Rice said.

“Super scrappy, aggressive and composed,” wing Chandler Smith offered.

And this from point guard Jessie Loera: “They’re a type of team we haven’t played recently. But what’s in our mind is getting ready and focused.”

Lorea spoke what others were thinking.

Despite a 28-4 record and a No. 5 seed that’s the best in program history by far, the Zags are something of an unknown commodity, even to themselves, after season-ending injuries March 11 to Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend.

The seed was earned, Fortier pointed out, by a season-long consistency that led to the best regular season in school history.

“But in some ways, it doesn’t feel like it,” Fortier said. “Our recent circumstances have created something of an unknown for us.

“We have more than enough (ability) to prove that we’re the correct seed, but it has to be proven.”

On Saturday, the Zags will try to prove it in the paint in order to advance to Monday’s second round against host Oregon State or Boise State.

With the 6-foot-3 Wirth twins, LeeAnne and Jenn, plus senior Zykera Rice, they’ll have an advantage inside against the Trojans’ top inside player, 6-foot senior Ronjanae DeGray.

DeGray will get help from her twin sister, 5-11 Raeyana DeGray, but the rest of the Little Rock starters stand 5-9, 5-8 and 5-7.

“I think there are areas where we can be strong against them,” Fortier said. “Hopefully, we will give them problems inside.”

Unlike the trio of losses to BYU, the Gonzaga bigs won’t have to patrol the perimeter against Little Rock. Guard Tori Lasker shoots 40.5 percent from 3, but no other Trojans seem to offer a threat.

Moreover, three players – Ronjanae DeGray (14.6 points per game) and guards Kyra Collier (14.5 ppg) and Lasker (9.9 ppg) – account for 63 percent of the Trojans’ scoring.

The Zags will face a different weapon, however, from the Sun Belt Conference regular-season and tournament champs: the motion offense and some hard screens.

“Most teams don’t play that way anymore, so we’re kind of a dinosaur that way,” Little Rock coach Joe Foley said. … “But it’s hard to get used to, so it gives us an advantage because most teams haven’t seen it.”

The Trojans have plenty of drivers, including Lasker, Collier, Terrion Moore and the DeGray twins, but they will face a disciplined defense.

“Team offense, team defense is what’s gotten us this far,” Fortier said.

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