Crumpacker: Zags Dance Again After Dispatching Toreros

March 6, 2018

By John Crumpacker, #WCChoops Columnist

There was a moment in Tuesday’s championship game of the West Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament that indicated this would be Gonzaga’s day at the Orleans Arena.

The Zags were trying to fend off a determined San Diego team, holding a 47-42 lead early in the third period. Eventual tournament Most Valuable Player Jill Barta launched a 3-point shot that hit the back of the rim, bounced straight up and … dropped through the net, giving Gonzaga a 50-42 lead with 8:34 left in the period.

“Seeing that 3-ball drop in, I thought everything else will drop in,’’ Barta said.

Well, at least 50 percent of everything else did in fact drop in as Barta scored 32 points, 20 in the second half, on 10 of 19 shooting and her team went on to post a 79-71 victory over the Toreros to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s super satisfying,’’ Barta said. “We work hard in practice every day. To walk away with an automatic bid is what everyone wants.’’

It was the seventh WCC Tournament championship for the Gonzaga women, who improved to 27-5 as they now wait to see who they will play in the NCAA Tournament and where.

“I’m really proud of our team,’’ Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. “They were so gritty. We kept getting better as the game went on. We weren’t in the driver’s seat by any stretch of the imagination.’’

San Diego saw to that as it led 25-20 after the first period and 31-28 early in the second. The Toreros last led at 31-30 and were down 45-40 at halftime, with such players as Maya Hood and Sydney Williams keeping them in striking distance with their scoring and rebounding.

“We started off the game strong,’’ said Hood, who finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists. “In the second quarter we had a lapse. We got timid and didn’t have confidence. We got ourselves in too much of a hole.’’

The hole became deeper in the fourth period, when a Barta layup gave Gonzaga its biggest lead of the game at 73-57 with 5:12 to play. That’s when a spirited rally by the Toreros enabled them to cut the lead to 73-66, 2:08 remaining.

That was as close as San Diego would get the rest of the way. The Toreros were forced into fouling and the Zags made sure Barta had the ball in her hands in these situations. The MVP finished off the scoring for Gonzaga with six free throws in the final 43 seconds.

“Jill Barta was everything Jill Barta has been – Player of the Year,’’ San Diego coach Cindy Fisher said. “For us, we had a little bit of time where we let Barta get away from us. … We were fronting Jill. It really worked in the first quarter. Then we went to man (defense) and our post players had a difficult time guarding her. Jill’s a really good player. We just let her get away from us.’’

San Diego finished the season 17-15 and will say goodbye to such stalwarts as Hood, Williams and Aubrey Ward-El, who combined to score 53 of their team’s 71 points. Fisher said making the WCC title game will benefit the players she has returning for 2018-19.

“It definitely helps us with our younger players,’’ Fisher said. “When you make a run like this, the feeling it brings to your team, the chemistry, all those players know what it feels like to make it to the championship game. I think we’ll be right there next year.’’

As for NCAA-bound Gonzaga, this is a team that is much more than just Barta, as splendid as she is scoring, rebounding and defending. Forward Zykera Rice, she of the brilliant dyed blue hair, provided an invaluable supporting role in the championship game as she scored 17 points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting performance.

“All the passes from my teammates were on point,’’ Rice said. “All I had to do was shoot.’’

There was a little more to it than that, as on an acrobatic shot that Rice banked in from the right side of the key for a 57-44 lead in the third period.

Fortier credited the play of her starting guards, Laura Stockton and Emma Stach, as important factors in holding their San Diego counterparts, Ward-El and Myah Pace, to 10 points each. As well, Stach scored 14 points and found the range on 4 of 7 shots from 3-point range.

“Emma has as good a focus as any player,’’ Fortier said. “She’s disciplined. She’s the anchor of our defense. We value them tremendously in our defensive efforts.’’

The unknown is how far this Gonzaga team, with an elite scorer in Barta and several complementary players, will go in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

“I’m excited to see who we play and where we’re going,’’ Barta said. “It’s the luck of the draw.’’

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.




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