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Gonzaga coach pulls no punches: ‘I coach fighters’

The Gonzaga Bulldogs defeated Western Illinois 80-65 in non-conference finale between two strong mid-major teams.

NCAA Women's Basketball: USA TODAY Sports-Archive Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

SPOKANE, WA -- On Monday evening, an unranked Western Illinois did the impossible - knocking off number 18 Stanford on the road. So when the Leathernecks invaded McCarthey Athletic Center on Thursday, Gonzaga’s starting five knew they had no sleeper squad in their house.

Western Illinois took off running from tip-off with a 25-17 lead after a full quarter. Showing no sign of this steamboat slowing down, The Lady Bulldogs would have to pioneer a new path to gain against a gritty team that could.

The Zags paved their way to an 80-65 win over the Leathernecks, with three players posting double-doubles.

“I coach fighters,” expressed Gonzaga Head Coach Lisa Fortier following the victory. “There in that first quarter we could have just said, ‘it’s Christmas time, let’s just go to conference play after this.’ And our team did not do that, I love the way that we rallied.”

This is not a team that would go down without a fight. Not before heading into conference play against a Pacific team that regularly scores in the triple digits.

The key to controlling WIU’s explosive tempo was really one of Gonzaga’s biggest strengths after all.

“We always talk about how defense and rebounds is our biggest offense,” explained Zykera Rice. “My team really stood behind me and all the missed shots that happened. I just made sure to control what I could control and that was on the boards and playing defense, so we really rallied as a team.”

In the first quarter, the Lady Bulldogs took the ball by the book, instead of playing to their own advantage.

“The three really isn’t our thing yet, I think we shot 17 of them,” said leading scorer Jill Barta. “That’s not something our team has developed yet, but the inside game is. Pull up jumpers, anything in the paint, Anything within ten feet is definitely our game and that’s exactly what we did tonight.”

It became less about the shots from the arc, points on the board, and stats on the rise, and more about what needed to happen to maintain control over a sly offense that rests within the Leathernecks’ roster.

“We talked in the locker room that they’re a big third quarter team and coach Lisa said that we can’t come out of the locker room asleep we have to step it up a bit,” said Barta.

“You either score all the points, or you go get all the rebounds,” echoed Fortier.

Sure, Gonzaga got the victory in their non-conference finale on Thursday night, but Western Illinois proved to be a much sharper thorn in their side than expected. It was their collaborative effort on defensive rebounds that stopped the bleeding.

Even Barta’s leading efforts with 21 points, 11 rebounds and a block called for defensive performances from other members of tonight’s double double club, Rice ( 14 pts, 13 reb, 2 blk) and Chandler Smith (12 pts, 11 reb).

“Without those two we don’t get boards,” explained Barta. “We need us three to step up and we need rebounds.”

“I just have to control the controllable and do the best thing I do to help my team which is rebound,” said Rice.

Plus, a win is a win, and sometimes another W in that column headed into conference play is all you need to boost morale.

“They just beat Stanford at Stanford - you don’t do that if you’re just an ok team,” said Fortier. “It’s a great win for us, it feels good and it’s going to be good on paper.”

Next up for Gonzaga is their conference opener against Pacific on December 28 at 7 p.m. PST. Western Illinois visits Bradley next on December 28 at TBA.

Gonzaga defeats Western Illinois 80-65

Posted by Swish Appeal on Thursday, December 21, 2017