Just before finals week, Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier sifted through her bench for a bandage against UNLV. With the Zags’ top shooter Jill Barta out with an ankle injury, Fortier needed someone to take her place, and fast.
She called on Jenn Wirth, a 6-foot-3 forward, to fill the gap. It was a tall order for a freshman who wouldn’t normally see much time on the court her first year.
“She’s a true freshman post player, which you don’t have often,” Fortier said. “A lot of times you have freshman post players who redshirt or who don’t have to be in the starting lineup in your ninth game (of) your collegiate career. So she’s done a really great job.”
In Sunday’s 97-74 win over Saint Francis of Pennsylvania, Fortier turned to Wirth again to step into a starting role in her tenth game this season, filling in for Barta, who was back in rotation, but was limited on the court.
Wirth didn’t disappoint the Zags, who were also missing senior guard Emma Stach because of a concussion she suffered against UNLV. Wirth finished with her first double-double, posting 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting and 11 rebounds.
“Just going into the game, knowing we had a few injuries, I knew I had to step up,” Wirth said.
Much like Barta, Wirth collapsed on defenders inside and put up most of her points in the paint. She roughed up Saint Francis down the stretch, scoring 11 points in the second half.
Also picking up for Barta at the post was junior Zykera Rice, who was perfect in the first half, hitting all six of her shots from the field for 13 points. She finished with a game-high 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting.
“Jill has been playing so physical, really dominating inside, and so Zykera has really stepped in where Barta has left off, and she’s been a load to handle inside,” Fortier said.
The posts helped outscore Saint Francis 64-30 in the paint and took control of a game that was slipping away from the Zags (6-4) before halftime.
The Red Flash (4-6) proved to be a scrappy bunch on defense, applying a full-court press early in the game that limited the Zags to only one field-goal attempt, while Saint Francis helped itself to eight shots from the field.
Wirth finally broke through Saint Francis’ pressure with a break inside and short jumper to give the Zags a 6-4 lead.
The Red Flash never took the lead in the second quarter, but they stayed close, pulling within a point of the Zags twice before Gonzaga was finally able to shake them off with a 9-2 run.
Rice sparked the run with three consecutive shots, starting with a layup that sent her to the line for an extra point. She followed with another layup and a fadeaway jumper.
Freshman Jill Townsend finished the run with a quick drive inside for a short flip that gave the Zags a 42-35 lead with 2 minutes left in the half.
The Zags ran away in the second half behind an early 11-0 run that started with Wirth’s 3-point play 3 minutes into the third quarter. Barta hit a pair of layups and sophomore guard Jessie Loera followed with a breakaway shot that gave the Zags a comfortable 23-point lead.
The Zags struggled to take care of the ball throughout the game, recording 21 turnovers that allowed Saint Francis an extra 23 points.
Gonzaga finished 61 percent from the field (40 of 66), and limited the Red Flash to 27 makes in 71 field-goal attempts.
Barta, who was limited to 14 minutes on the floor, went 4 for 6 from the field, adding nine points and six rebounds.
Loera and junior guard Chandler Smith joined Rice and Wirth in double figures, posting 13 and 10 points, respectively. They combined for 11 boards and six assists.
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