How whimsical was that scene last weekend at the McCarthey Athletic Center?
And how fitting?
There was Gonzaga star Jill Barta, sidelined with an ankle injury and sporting a boot on her left foot and a cowboy boot on her right. She is from Montana, after all.
After that bit of levity, it was left to others to lift their game to make up for Barta’s absence. In Saturday’s game against UNLV, the job fell to cowgirls Chandler Smith and Jill Townsend.
“We’re actually neighbors,” said Smith, who went to Brewster High and whose family ranch adjoins that of the Townsend family of Okanogan.
Now they’re working closer than ever on the court. on Saturday, they helped carry a disjointed GU team to the brink of victory over UNLV before falling 52-50. Along the way, Smith played at four positions, while Townsend, a true freshman guard, prospered in the paint.
“It was definitely a learning experience for me,” said Townsend, who had seven points and five boards in 20 minutes.
With Barta’s status uncertain, more lessons lay ahead. The Bulldogs (5-4) host Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) on Sunday and Western Illinois on Thursday in their final two nonconference games,
Against UNLV, Smith had a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds, but she downplayed that.
“It’s a team game, and a lot of us have to step up,” Smith said. “Seeing Jill out makes me want to step up my game.”
So have her teammates. With Barta out and point guard Laura Stockton recently returned from a shoulder injury, the Zags have employed more four-guard lineups.
The Zags have employed 12 lineups this season with only one player who plays primarily a forward position on the floor. Smith and Townsend have filled the void in the four spot as guards.
Those small-ball lineups are outscoring their opponents by an average of 9.4 points per game.
Either Smith or Townsend are in every one of those 12 lineups.
The versatile Smith has played the most minutes for the Zags this year and GU has outscored opponents by 9.6 points per game when she’s on the floor.
GU head coach Lisa Fortier hopes it pays off in the long run.
“We have a lot of things we can work on,” Fortier said this week as the Bulldogs juggled practice and finals week. “We do need everyone to get better.”
That’s especially true for long-range shooting. Through nine games, the Bulldogs are 40 for 160 (25 percent from beyond the arc), which ranks 318th out of 345 schools in Division I.
Barta and Smith are a combined 26 for 60 (43.3 percent), but the rest of the team is 14 for 100 (14 percent).
Earlier in the season, 3-point shooting was the elephant in the room.
“We’re beyond that now,” Fortier said.
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