Behind juniors Jill Barta and Laura Stockton, the Zags seek their third West Coast Conference title in the past four seasons.
Jill Barta and Laura Stockton are coming off great seasons and this year they will be expected to do even more for the Gonzaga women’s basketball team.
Last year they helped lead the Bulldogs to the West Coast Conference title and earn a return to the NCAA tournament, but coach Lisa Fortier has increased expectations since then.
And why not? Both are juniors, so they’re being asked to contribute more than points, rebounds and assists.
Coach: Lisa Fortier, 4th season.
2016-17: 37-2 overall, 17-1 West Coast Conference (1st).
Starters returning: 3.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jill Barta, F, 6-3, jr. – She can score inside and outside, and led the team last season in scoring (16.8 points) and in made three-pointers (41). Was second on the team in rebounding (6.0).
Laura Stockton, G, 5-8, jr. – The daughter of NBA all-time assists leader John Stockton, she averaged a team-high 4.4 assists last season, third best in the WCC. Had a team-high 14 points in loss to Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament.
Gonzaga should once again contend for the WCC title, and have won it twice in Fortier’s three seasons as head coach.
“Junior year, that’s when you get a little more picky,” said Fortier, who wants her upperclassmen to excel at the intangibles that can make the difference between another WCC title and something a lot less satisfying.
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For Barta, GU’s versatile 6-foot-3 forward, that means keeping her emotions in check and showing the right body language on the court.
For Stockton, who’s otherwise developed into a complete point guard, it means staying levelheaded.
“One of the things I love about Laura is how competitive she is,” Fortier said. “But there’s times when she’s too emotional … we need her to find a level where we don’t have spikes or lulls.”
The Bulldogs had few lulls last year during a 26-7 season. A return trip to the NCA A tournament will depend on how well Barta and Stockton handle the mantle of leadership after the graduation of Kiara Kudron and Elle Tinkle.
Last year, Barta did a little of everything, leading the Bulldogs in scoring (16.8 points per game) and free-throw shooting (84.7 percent), while averaging six rebounds.
Stockton, a Gonzaga Prep product, had 75 assists and only 43 turnovers while averaging 8.4 points and a team-leading 2.5 steals.
They will lead a team that already has great chemistry, according to Fortier.
“I love this group of players,” Fortier said. “They get along and care about each other … and they seem so coachable. Everything is new and fresh.”
Besides Stockton and returning starter Emma Stach, the Bulldogs bring back junior wing Chandler Smith, speedy sophomore point guard Jessie Loera and sophomore Corryn Douglas.
They will be pushed by Jill Townsend of Okanogan, who’s only 5-10 but has the strength and versatility to compete for minutes as a true freshman.
Smith, a 6-footer from Brewster, played in all 33 games last year. She found her rhythm in WCC play, averaging 5.0 points and shooting 37 percent from long range, while averaging almost three rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time. She’s also a strong defender on the wing.
Last year, Kudron averaged almost eight boards and was the Bulldogs’ best defender in the paint. Barta and Zykera Rice will be counted on to rebound this season and do most of the work inside.
“Jill has been such a capable scorer that she hasn’t had to think as much about that part of the game,” Fortier said. “But she and Zykera are both capable. … It’s up to her or Zykera to see who defends the other team’s best post player.”
Rice, a 6-1 junior from Lakewood, will be a key player this year. Last season, she averaged 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while playing less than 10 minutes a game. Those numbers should rise significantly this season.