Jessie Loera enjoys the sound of a basket just as much as the next player, but getting buckets and piling on the points is hardly her favorite part of playing basketball.
She likes the other side of the court, where she can get a little scrappy with her opponents.
“Defense is one of my favorite parts of the game,” Loera said.
That came across loud and clear on Thursday, when the Zags (16-4, 9-0 West Coast Conference) rolled over the Portland Pilots (4-16, 0-9) in a 75-36 victory.
Loera caught Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier’s eye a couple of years ago when the now-sophomore was roughing up her high school opponents while playing for the Moses Lake Chiefs. Her quick feet and aggressiveness on the court earned her three Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Columbia Basin Big 9 and a spot on Gonzaga’s roster last season.
This season, Loera has become one of Fortier’s toughest defenders on the floor.
“She just changes the dynamic as far as pace and play,” Fortier said.
On Thursday, Loera chased the Pilots from one end of the court to the other, forcing turnovers and capitalizing on Portland’s poor ball control with four steals, just one less than her season high.
“She’s always going to get those steals,” forward Jill Barta said. “It’s fun to watch when you’re on the bench. She does it in practice. She gets some of us all the time.”
Loera became a needed spark for the Zags in the first quarter Gonzaga couldn’t find a good look. She replaced starting guard Chandler Smith and immediately put up a shot at the rim. The layup snapped a scoreless streak of five consecutive misses from the field in the opening minutes.
The Pilots maintained the lead for more than 5 minutes in the first quarter and stayed close behind the Zags in the final minutes when Gonzaga finally pulled ahead. Loera responded with a pair of steals, one of which sent her to the line for a make that gave the Zags an 11-8 lead.
The Zags created some distance on a series of short runs in the second quarter. Barta went on a 5-0 run alone near the end of the quarter with a three-point play and another make at the rim.
Barta sparked a 6-0 run at the end of the half with a layup and a pair of makes at the line, giving her 17 points in the first half. Emma Stach capped the run with a jumper to extend Gonzaga’s lead to 37-18 lead at halftime.
The Zags pulled away further midway through the second half on an 11-0 stretch fueled by a series of free throws and close-range buckets. Forward Zykera Rice contributed seven points to the run, including a pair of jumpers and three free throws.
Midway through the third quarter, Loera swiped the ball again and raced to the other end where she found Barta at the top of the arc. Barta hit the 3, her only one in three attempts, to give the Zags a 47-22 lead.
Barta led a trio of double-digit scorers with a game-high 21 points and seven rebounds. Rice followed with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field.
Gonzaga hit 46 percent from the field (30 of 63) but only 9 of 19 from the line. The Zags scored 27 points off Portland’s 19 turnovers and committed only nine turnovers.
The Zags, who were ranked 340th out of 349 Division I teams in 3-point percentage heading into Thursday’s game, went 6 of 14 from 3-point range. Gonzaga missed its first six attempts before Stach drained back-to-back 3s in the final minutes of the first half.
Portland’s 36 points are the lowest against Gonzaga this season and bests the previous low of 44 scored by Santa Clara on Saturday. The Pilots hit 23.7 percent of their shots from the field, with 14 makes in 59 attempts. It was the lowest field-goal percentage Gonzaga has allowed this season.
Portland couldn’t find the basket from 3-point range for the majority of the night. Sophomore forward Keala Quinlan finally drained a 3 for the Pilots in the final minutes of the game. It was Portland’s only 3-pointer in 17 tries.
The Zags allowed only one Pilot to score in double digits – Daria Slaga, who led the team with 10 points. Portland’s leading scorer, Julie Spencer, finished with just four points after going 2 for 11 from the field.
Thursday’s win marked the halfway point in conference play. The Zags, who are undefeated in nine games against WCC opponents, will jump on a plane and head to California this weekend for their date with San Francisco on Saturday.
“We still have a long road ahead of us,” Fortier said.
“There’s no better situation that we could be sitting in,” she said. “For nine games now we’ve taken care of business.”
The Zags have yet to meet two WCC opponents this season – BYU and San Diego.
Gonzaga will face both teams on the road beginning on Thursday, when the Zags will be in San Diego. Two days later, the Zags will be in Provo, Utah, for their showdown with the Cougars.
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