The rest of the West Coast Conference is getting the message: Gonzaga is emphatic about defending its title.
On Saturday afternoon at the McCarthey Athletic Center, it was Santa Clara that took the ball into the paint at its own risk. Gonzaga was waiting with open arms, altering a few shots and blocking a few more.
The Bulldogs also fouled as often as necessary in order to send a simple message:
“We’re going to protect our home court the best we can,” Bulldog coach Lisa Fortier.
Did they ever.
Santa Clara came into this first-place showdown riding a 12-game winning streak, but GU held the Broncos to a season-low 22.2 percent shooting effort in a 53-44 win before an appreciative crowd of 6,000.
That came two days after the Bulldogs held San Francisco to 28 percent, and a week they kept Pepperdine and Loyola in the low-30s.
In other words, GU’s defense is clamping down tighter with every game, a big reason Fortier’s squad has moved into sole possession of first place at 4-0 in the WCC and 12-4 overall.
Expecting a low-scoring game against the Broncos’ zone defense, Fortier stressed defense in her pregame meeting with the team. “We had to make our defense was tight, that we were helping each other. That was our big key,” Fortier said.
Determined to take the ball inside, the Broncos came away with just one first-quarter field goal. By then, GU had taken a 10-point lead, which dipped a few times into single digits before the Bulldogs put the game away with more defense in the fourth quarter.
Leading 50-44 after Emma Stach hit a layin with 7:19 left, the Bulldogs managed to get shut out the rest of the way. During that time, GU missed its last seven shots – including several that came far too early – and committed four turnovers, yet won semi-comfortably.
That’s because Santa Clara made just one of its last 13 shots, a 3-pointer from Marie Bertholdt with 5:44 left that closed the gap to nine. The game never got closer, thanks in part to some timely rebounding.
Beaten on the boards (43-40) for one of the few times this season, GU got the ones that mattered at the end. With 3:13 left, guard Laura Stockton launched a 3 that fell short, but she followed her shot and corralled the ball.
After Santa Clara missed a pair of 3s, GU post Shelby Cheslek missed a layin, but Chelsea Waters snagged the rebound. Waters passed to Georgia Stirton, who led all scorers with 13 but missed from 3.
Again, Waters was there, grabbing a rebound that all but cinched the game with 1:50 to play.
During the late shooting slump, Stirton was mindful that “We had to hone in our rebounding. When we weren’t shooting so well, that became extra important.”
The game was a breakthrough for Waters, who moved into starter’s role while Elle Tinkle recovers from a knee injury. Along with a team-high eight rebounds, the junior from Lewiston had eight points and two steals and got her hands on several Santa Clara passes.
“She played with a lot of energy,” Fortier said. “She got her hands on balls … I think it’s the best game she’s had in her career.”
Gonzaga 53, Santa Clara 44
Santa Clara (12-3, 3-1)—Bertholdt 1-4 4-6 7, Parkinson 3-13 5-8 11, McGwire 1-7 1-2 4, Berry 2-6 4-7 8, Hanson 2- 0-0 5, Toleafoa 0-4 0-0 0, Martin 2-7 1-2 7, Gallaway 0-2 0-0 0, Hudson 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 12-54 15-25 44.
Gonzaga (12-4, 4-0)—Kudron 1-3 2-2 4, Cheslek 2-5 4-4 8, Waters 3-8 0-2 8, Stirton 4-7 4-4 13, Stach 3-11 0-0 6, Templeton 0-3 0-0 0, Stockton 2-5 0-0 4, Barta 3-9 0-0 7, Bosch 0-0 0-0 0, Nilles 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 19-54 10-12 53.
Halftime—Gonzaga 32-23. End of Regulation—Gonzaga 53-44. 3-Point Goals—Santa Clara 5-16 (Bertholdt 1-2, McGwire 1-4, Berry 0-1, Hanson 1-3, Toleafoa 0-3, Martin 2-3), Gonzaga 5-25 (Waters 2-6, Stirton 1-2, Stach 0-4, Templeton 0-3, Stockton 0-2, Barta 1-5, Nilles 1-3). Fouled out—Nilles. Rebounds—Santa Clara 43 (Bertholdt 10), Gonzaga 40 (Waters 8). Assists—Santa Clara 7 (Bertholdt, Parkinson 2), Gonzaga 10 (Stockton 3). Total Fouls—Santa Clara 16, Gonzaga 22. Technical—None. A—6,000.
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