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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Just proud of her’: Gonzaga assistant R-Jay Barsh excited to watch South Carolina’s Chloe Kitts at Final Four

Gonzaga assistant coach R-Jay Barsh and South Carolina sophomore forward Chloe Kitts go back so far that Barsh isn’t exactly sure how long.

“She was a little kid,” Barsh said. “Nearly her entire life.”

Barsh has helped train Kitts on the basketball court and he’s been a mentor away from the game.

Barsh was on Gonzaga’s charter flight back to Spokane after the Sweet 16 loss to Purdue last week in Detroit when thoughts about the game and recruiting took a brief timeout in his mind.

“I thought, ‘Wait a second, I might be able to see her play,’ ” said Barsh, who hadn’t considered the possibility because he anticipated being busy with the Zags in the men’s NCAA Tournament. “Then I’m watching their game (on televison Sunday) and it’s, ‘Please win this game.’ ”

The unbeaten Gamecocks did just that, pulling away late to defeat Oregon State to reach their fourth straight Final Four. South Carolina (36-0) takes on third-seeded North Carolina State on Friday in Cleveland, with Iowa facing UConn in the second semifinal.

Barsh is in Cleveland to watch Kitts’ game and catch up with her family – dad Jason, mom Krystle and Chloe’s younger sister, Kylee, who has committed to Florida.

Barsh and the Kitts family have several parallels. Barsh played at Tacoma Community College nearly a decade after Jason played for the Titans, and Barsh also returned to coach his alma mater for four seasons.

Barsh then was head coach for seven seasons at Southeastern University, an NAIA program in Lakeland, Florida, before spending three seasons on Leon Rice’s staff at Boise State and one assisting at Florida State. The Kitts relocated from Washington to Florida about eight years ago.

“Me and her dad are really close,” said Barsh, who recently completed his first season on Mark Few’s staff. “Jason always had a drive to have the right people around his daughters.

“Our families are really close. Every summer, Chloe and Kylee came up and worked out for a couple weeks. When I had shoulder surgery down there last year, (Chloe) was the first one to take care of me. We’ll FaceTime and talk three to four times a week on how to handle moments and things like that.”

Barsh began working with Chloe when she took a serious interest in basketball. Barsh ran camps for three straight weeks at Southeastern and Chloe had no problem competing against the boys.

“She always seems like she belongs, no matter where she’s at or who she’s with,” Barsh said. “If she’s in the gym with older guys, she has this confidence and swagger about her. She knows how to play the game. She had 10 points and seven rebounds in her first game at South Carolina and she should have been a senior in high school.”

Kitts, ranked No. 17 in the 2023 recruiting class, completed high school requirements to enroll early at South Carolina. The 6-foot-2 forward saw limited time in 18 games on a team that reached the Final Four before falling to Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

Kitts has enjoyed a bigger role as a sophomore, starting 29 games and averaging 9.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 18.9 minutes. She’s scored in double figures 18 times and has seven with at least 10 boards. The Gamecocks are two wins from becoming the first undefeated national champions since UConn in 2016.

“She’s a versatile forward, can score multiple ways, plays within the system,” Barsh said. “We’ve only seen a little of what she can do offensively. She knows how to wait her turn. She’s a hybrid, she’s a switchable ‘4’, what we love at Gonzaga with Anton (Watson), can play multiple ways, hit the outside shot. That’s how she’s been trained to play, not fall into a position.”

Barsh hasn’t worked with Kylee as much as Chloe. He said the sisters have different games, with the 6-4 Kylee, ranked 25th in the 2024 class, more inside-oriented. The two will be on opposing teams in the SEC next season.

“I’m more worried about mom and dad in that one,” Barsh said.

Popularity for women’s college basketball is soaring, thanks to superstars Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers, with 12.3 million watching Iowa’s 94-87 win over LSU on Monday. That established a record for women’s college basketball, and it was the most watched men’s or women’s game ESPN has broadcast.

Barsh pointed out several factors in the growth of women’s basketball, including the players’ name, image and likeness (NIL) and branding opportunities and their highlights being readily available on social media. He called Clark’s rise to stardom a “turning point.”

The Gamecocks were unbeaten last season before losing to Clark (41 points) and Iowa 77-73 in the Final Four. If both win Friday, they will collide again in Sunday’s championship game.

Kitts had 21 points in a first-round win and 12 in a victory over North Carolina in the round of 32. She had five points and five boards in a Sweet 16 win over Indiana.

“It’s like I’m an uncle or she’s my goddaughter,” said Barsh, who has two sons. “I’m just proud of her.”