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The Keys to Gonzaga’s Historic 10-1 Start

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No Gonzaga women’s team has ever started 10-1

Mike Wootton

The Gonzaga Women’s basketball program has had a lot of success the last dozen years. Kelly Graves and Courtney Vandersloot led them to an Elite Eight in 2011. They’ve been to four Sweet 16s, including one under current head coach Lisa Fortier in 2015. Home attendance has gone from under 1,500 to over 5,000 fans per game over the last 10 years. But no team in program history has had a better start than the 2018-2019 Bulldogs.

Their 10-1 start is not fluffed up by a poor schedule, either. They have true road wins over Eastern Washington, UNLV, and Missouri State. They have neutral site wins over Rutgers and Western Kentucky. They have home wins over Pac-12 schools in Washington State and their biggest win of the year, Stanford. The lone loss on the season came on a neutral site against defending National Champion, Notre Dame. Gonzaga led that game for most of the first quarter and it was a single digit game early in the third before the Irish finally took over and won by 16.

Their #21 ranking in the AP Poll is the highest since March 2014. Their win over Stanford was just the fifth win over a top 10 team in program history. They are currently projected a six seed in the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme. After losing a prolific scorer in Jill Barta and a starting guard in Emma Stach, how are these Bulldogs doing it?

Defense

Gonzaga’s calling card all season has been their defense. Gonzaga has given up a stingy 56.5 ppg and opponents are shooting just 37 percent from the field. Only two teams have shot above 40 percent all year: Notre Dame (45.5%) and Stanford (43.9%). They’ve held five teams to under 35 percent and only two teams have hit more than five 3s in a game. They have forced at least 15 turnovers in 10 of their 11 games, which is crazy, and average 18.5 points off those turnovers. They have a rebounding margin of +5.5 per game. Almost every one of their defensive statistics is in the top 100 of college basketball. They use a mix of man, zone, and a full court press to keep their opponents off-balance. Their guards consistently get into passing lanes and their bigs block three shots a game. The offense struggled a bit at the start of the season, but the defense hit the ground running and has only gotten better.

Depth

We wondered coming into the season who would take over the scoring load after Jill Barta’s departure. The answer is kind of just everybody. The offensive attack is balanced each game and there really isn’t a go-to scorer. Six Zags average at least eight points, with Zykera Rice leading the way at 11.3 ppg, followed closely by fellow senior Chandler Smith at 10.3 ppg. With everyone finally healthy, Coach Fortier uses a nine-man rotation with everyone playing over 10 minutes each game.

The biggest revelations have been the breakout seasons of Katie Campbell and Jill Townsend. The sophomore Townsend showed flashes of potential last season, and has taken off this year. The 5’11” guard averages nine points off the bench and uses her size to grab five rebounds, third best on the team. She hit a huge dagger three-pointer against Stanford and is shooting 52% from the field. Campbell, on the other hand, did not get a ton of playing time last season, but has come into her own this year as a 3-point and defensive specialist. The junior guard is shooting an insane 53 percent from deep this season (24-for-45), good for fifth in the country. She’s also 10-for-10 from the foul line and only has seven turnovers in 11 games, best on the team.

Laura Stockton only averages eight points a game, but leads the team in steals and assists, doing what every Stockton seems to do. Chandler Smith has struggled from the field all year, but still stuffs the stat sheet as she always does. Sophomore Jenn Wirth is finally back from her broken finger and is averaging eight points over four games, including a career-high 14 points in yesterday’s victory. She may supplant her sister LeeAnne Wirth in the starting line-up soon. LeeAnne, the defensive-minded twin, has played more than admirably in her sister’s absence. Junior Jessie Loera, who missed two games with a concussion, is shooting 35% from deep and is third on the team in assists. And then there’s true freshman Melody Kempton, who leads the team in offensive rebounds by a wide margin, grabbing nearly three a game. She’s also second on the team in blocks.

All nine players I just mentioned in the rotation are averaging between 16 and 29 minutes, and all nine of them seem to have their specific roles. Last year, the offense basically revolved around Barta. This year, everyone has a share. It hasn’t been pretty by any means, especially to start the season. But they seem to have hit their offensive stride lately, scoring 70+ in four of their last five games.

What’s Next

Gonzaga finishes up their non-conference schedule on Thursday with a game against Idaho at home. They should win that and finish 11-1 before WCC play begins. The WCC is fairly top heavy this season, unless something changes. The Bulldogs will be fighting with Saint Mary’s, LMU and BYU atop the conference. In all likelihood, they will win the conference, as they were picked to do in pre-season. The two biggest question marks surrounding the team are three-point shooting and the lack of a go-to scorer. Katie Campbell has 24 of Gonzaga’s 51 threes this season. If you take away her and Loera, the Zags are shooting just 23 percent from deep, including Smith’s 3-for-28 and Stockton’s 3-for-16. Lucky for them, their best performance from deep came against Stanford when they went 8-for-13, the only time they’ve hit more than seven threes all year. In that Stanford game, Jill Townsend and Chandler Smith both hit enormous shots in the final three minutes to ice the game. Yesterday against Missouri State, it was Zykera Rice’s bucket with under a minute to go that proved to be the dagger. The double-edged sword about having a balanced attack is that you have no go-to scorer in big moments, but you also have everyone on the court who can possibly score.

As I mentioned before the season, this group of seniors has not won an NCAA Tournament game in their careers at Gonzaga. So far, they’re doing everything they can to set themselves up for a beneficial position when March hits. If they continue to play defense at a high level, and their offense continues their upward trajectory, they might not just win a tournament game, they could be playing in the second weekend.