After early struggles, Gonzaga's women cruised to a conference title and into March Madness

Coach Lisa Fortier hopes to follow a historic WCC season with a deep run. - KYLE RERADA/GU ATHLETICS
Kyle Rerada/GU Athletics
Coach Lisa Fortier hopes to follow a historic WCC season with a deep run.

Winning games, dominating the West Coast Conference and making it to the NCAA Tournament aren't exclusive to the Gonzaga men's team. The women's team has been doing it for years now, too, and this season was no different.

With a 79-71 victory over the San Diego Toreros in the WCC Tournament Championship on March 6, Gonzaga punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. It's Gonzaga's 10th trip to the Big Dance since 2007. The program has come to expect this level of success, but there was no guarantee of it after a rocky start to the season.

"This team had a lot of question marks early in the year," head coach Lisa Fortier said. "We had a lot of new players and a lot of people with new roles."

Gonzaga struggled through the first month of the season and sat at 3-3 entering December. Since then the Zags have lost just twice, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Dec. 9 and Saint Mary's on Feb. 10.

That loss to Saint Mary's was the Zags' only loss in WCC play. With a 17-1 league record, they finished the season with the most wins in WCC history. So dominant was Gonzaga that the Zags clinched the league regular season with three games left on the schedule. Which is impressive in and of itself, but even more so when you take a look at what was on their late-season schedule.

Five of the Zags' final eight games came against three of the league's four best teams: BYU, Saint Mary's and San Diego. The Zags went 7-1 during that stretch to finish the season four games ahead of second place Saint Mary's.

Gonzaga now owns 13 of the past 14 West Coast Conference regular season titles.

The individual accolades keep rolling in as well. So it's safe to say coach Fortier, who took home WCC Coach of the Year honors, and her staff found answers to those early season questions.

Junior forward Jill Barta (18.8 points per game) was named 2018 WCC Player of the Year. Fellow juniors Zykera Rice (12 points per game) and Chandler Smith (9.5 points per game) were named second team all-WCC. Newcomer Jenn Wirth landed on the all-freshman team.

The team's lone senior, Emma Stach (7.4 points per game), didn't receive the same recognition from the league as her teammates, but her presence has been invaluable this season.

"Emma is very even-keeled out there," Fortier said. "I know she's going to do her job."

Stach scored 36 points during three games in the WCC Tournament. Her tenacious play helped Gonzaga overcome a physical semifinal battle with San Francisco and a tough, back-and-forth title game tilt with San Diego.

Stach's solid play helped push Gonzaga back into the NCAA Tournament, just in time for what could be the most mad month of March Spokane's ever seen. As usual the Gonzaga men and women are going to the dance. Making this year even more crazy is that some of the dancing will go down right here.

Spokane Arena is hosting Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games on the women's side on March 24 and 26. Gonzaga won't be part of the Spokane scene like they were three years ago, but no doubt fans would be happy to see them make the Sweet 16 working through the Lexington Region instead. ♦

Gonzaga landed a 13 seed in the NCAA tournament and face No. 4 seed Stanford in Palo Alto at 3 pm Saturday. The game will air on ESPN2.

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