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Young players made big strides in Gonzaga women’s win

As her three children were frolicking on the court Saturday afternoon, Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier warmed to the subject of growth spurts.

She and a sellout crowd of 6,000 had just witnessed a big one, as some of the youngest Bulldogs took over the McCarthey Center on the way to a 56-39 West Coast Conference win over Pepperdine.

“I love to see those players come in and get some experience and some confidence,” Fortier said after watching freshmen Laura Stockton, Jill Barta, Zhané Templeton and Zykera Rice score 37 of the Bulldogs’ 56 points.

“Free money,” Fortier called it, the playing time gained by her freshmen. “Next year it’s going to be a little more serious.”

Things were already fairly serious at the beginning of the week. GU had dropped five of its previous six games, in the process losing starting forward Kiara Kudron to a wrist injury that Fortier termed “week to week.”

On top of that, starting point guard Georgia Stirton has a case of pink eye, limiting her minutes.

But if injuries necessitated a change in the lineup, they also served to highlight the virtues of Fortier’s young players. Templeton – who was 4 for 4 from the field, for nine points – and Rice picked up the slack of the injury to Kudron and giving a much-needed boost in the paint.

Meanwhile, Stockton had no assists but scored a game-high 14 points, demonstrating that she can take it to the hoop as well as dish it out.

Already a staple off the bench, Stockton had one of her best games while subbing for Stirton.

“I’m just trying to fill her spot until she’s ready to go 100 percent,” said Stockton, who was 6 for 7 from the field in 21 minutes on the court.

“Now’s the time in the season where we need to step up … that’s going to help us in the future,” Stockton said.

In the short term, the Bulldogs are 16-9 overall and 8-5 in the conference – meaningless numbers when the goal is to earn an eighth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. What matters now is steady improvement toward the WCC tournament, which begins in four weeks.

Already, Stockton was looking beyond Saturday’s home game against Portland.

“We’re just looking to get a postseason spot, and we’re just trying to show as much heart as we can,” Stockton said.

That, too, was on display after GU held a 21-17 halftime lead over a Pepperdine team that had dropped 10 straight games and shares the WCC basement with Portland. The Waves played tough defense in the first half, while GU seemed tentative on offense.

In particular, post Shelby Cheslek (1 for 7 from the field) and Barta (2 for 8) struggled in the paint.

“We had to work for everything we got,” said Fortier, whose team was 8 for 23 from the field in the first half.

After regrouping at halftime – “we went to the locker room and did a little dance,” Rice said – the Bulldogs came out strongly in the third quarter. A four-point halftime lead grew to double digits as GU shot 53 percent in the second half.

The Bulldogs also took better care of the ball – GU had 12 turnovers at halftime but only five more at game’s end – and fiercely contested the passing lanes.

Partly because of that, Pepperdine (5-19, 1-12) finished 13 for 53 from the field.

The game was still in doubt with four minutes left, but Cheslek’s pass to Barta led to a layup. A minute later, Stockton followed with a layup and a 3-pointer to make it 54-39 with 2:01 left.

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