LAS VEGAS – It’s not so much that Jill Barta hates being in the spotlight.
She just tolerates it.
“I’m fine with it,” she said.
“It’s just more of a team thing,” she said. “I’ve grown up and I was always told it’s never a ‘you’ sport. It’s always your teammates, it’s always about this, always about your coach, or something else.”
But on Tuesday, it was all about Barta. Though she tried her best, she couldn’t escape the attention.
Just after Gonzaga’s 79-71 win over San Diego, the lights and cameras gravitated to Barta, who finished with a game-high 32 points and eight rebounds. She hid in the middle of her teammates as they celebrated their second consecutive West Coast Conference Tournament title.
The cameras followed her up to the stage in the center of Orleans Arena, where she accepted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. They followed her to the basketball hoop where she cut off her piece of the net. She forced a smile for a photo before hurrying down the ladder and out of sight.
Barta stole the show quite a bit this season, leading the Zags, now 27-5, to 17 conference wins. The junior forward also led the team in the majority of games on offense and on the glass, averaging a team-best 18.3 points and 8.4 boards going into the title game.
For a moment on Tuesday, she managed to turn the attention to the other Zags. Barta struggled to get going in the first 10 minutes against the Toreros. She couldn’t get a shot to fall from the field in the entire first quarter, but managed to score four points at the line.
Most of Barta’s first-quarter woes were a direct effect of San Diego’s zone defense that allowed the Toreros to double up on Barta inside.
Gonzaga’s defense also struggled. “We kept getting better throughout the game,” head coach Lisa Fortier said. “We don’t often give up 25 points in a quarter, but we knew we couldn’t do that and expect to win a game.”
The Zags found a rhythm on the defensive end late in the first half. After giving up 25 points in the first quarter, they held the Toreros to 15 points in the second quarter and just one field goal in the third.
Barta found her shot in the first minute of the second quarter. She broke through with three consecutive makes. Her scoring touch spurred a 13-0 run that was packed with mostly makes in the paint and Emma Stach’s third 3-pointer of the game.
After trailing for most of the half, the Zags pulled ahead with about a minute left on Laura Stockton’s three-point play under the hoop. Rice followed with another three-point play on a layup, giving the Zags a 45-40 lead at halftime.
The Toreros switched between zone and man defense in the second half, but when they abandoned their zone, the Zags flourished.
Barta, let loose, scored 20 points in the second half.
The bigs were able to get through with just one defender covering, and they started a scoring frenzy inside. After scoring just four points in the paint in the first quarter, Gonzaga found ways to post up and finished with 32 points inside.
Gonzaga found some trouble briefly in the final minutes of the fourth quarter that kept the crowd uneasy. Barta hit back-to-back jumpers, giving the Zags a 73-57 lead with 5 minutes left, but they didn’t score from the field for the rest of the game.
The Zags committed three turnovers in the late scoring drought that lasted for more than four minutes. Barta finally broke up the scoreless run with six consecutive makes at the line in the final minute.
The Toreros attempted their comeback with a 9-0 run that cut Gonzaga’s lead to seven points with 2 minutes left, but it wasn’t enough time to close the gap.
Rice hit all seven of her shots from the field and was perfect at the line (3 for 3) for 17 points. She helped out Barta in the first quarter with eight points for the Zags.
Stach followed the bigs in double digits with 14 points, with all four of her field goals coming from 3-point range.She also defended San Diego’s leading scorer Aubrey Wood-El for the majority of the game, holding her to 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Wood-El was held to just two field goals until she found a couple of good looks in San Diego’s fourth-quarter run.
Forward Maya Hood led the Toreros (17-15) with 23 points and 11 boards. Coeur d’Alene native Sydney Williams followed with 20 points, shooting 9 for 16 from the field.
Gonzaga outrebounded the Toreros 34-26 and dished out 17 assists. San Diego had 11. The Zags hit all 16 of their shots at the line, led by Barta with 10 free throws.