An hour after Gonzaga’s heartbreaking 69-68 loss to Saint Mary’s on Thursday night, the McCarthey Athletic Center was populated by two custodians, a sportswriter and a freshman who just wants to get better.
That’s right: Jill Barta was back on the floor, perfecting her dribble, her jumper and her drive – the one that let her down when a last-second layin missed the mark.
Gone was the crowd of 5,563, including the guy who walked past me while muttering, “This team has really let me down.”
Perhaps it has – it’s been a decade since GU lost three West Coast Conference games in a season – but that’s a mostly reflection on the program and the same coaches who took the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 a year ago.
Call it the burden of expectations, the assumption that success is inevitable simply because you’ve won 11 straight WCC titles and are picked to win yet another despite losing two of your top three scorers from a year ago.
Coach Lisa Fortier knew this team would be offensively challenged after the graduation of Sunny Greinacher and Keani Albanez.
What she didn’t know was that first-team all-WCC guard Elle Tinkle would be lost to injury just 10 games into the season. Or that Emma Wolfram – a key player in last year’s postseason drive – would play just one game before her knee gave out.
Predictably, this team is struggling to score. Through eight conference games, the Bulldogs are shooting 40.3 percent from the field – fourth-best in the WCC but not championship caliber – and just 30.8 percent from 3-point range.
Free-throw shooting has been abysmal in WCC play: at 64.2 percent, it’s the worst in the conference. Last year it was 77.3 percent, but again graduation has taken a toll as Albanez and Greinacher were a combined 84 percent last year and went to the line 204 times.
A dropoff was expected, but not to these depths.
“You can’t shoot 50 percent from the free throw line and expect to win close games,” Fortier said with frustration in her voice. By comparison, Saint Mary’s was 16-for-19 from the line.
It hasn’t helped that the conference is better this year. Tenth in RPI last season, the WCC is up to eighth this year. BYU is 12th overall and St. Mary’s is 47th after wins over Cal and Washington State.
Fortier and her staff are doing what they can, relying on defense and rebounding to carry them through. “We can’t shoot the ball for them,” Fortier said.
In one sense the pressure is off. Last year, the Bulldogs were 16-2 in the WCC, yet had to sweat out Selection Sunday with an RPI in the low 40s.
This year, with their RPI at 72, the Bulldogs (13-7 overall, 5-3 in the WCC) are unlikely to earn an at-large bid to the Tournament.
That means Fortier and her staff can build toward the WCC Tournament.
The work starts now. The team is holding an extra practice ahead of Saturday’s game against Pacific.
“We just have to try to get better,” Fortier said.
Barta was simply getting a head start.