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This week in the WCC: Gonzaga takes on a familiar foe in UNLV with payback on their minds

Plus, a closer look at the conference’s 18-3 start to the season, including Loyola Marymount’s Pac-12 sweep.

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs San Diego
Gonzaga guard Chandler Smith led the Zags against UNLV in last season’s meeting, scoring 17 points and grabbing 8 rebounds.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When the Gonzaga Bulldogs faced the UNLV Lady Rebels last season, all things considered, the Zags had the edge going in. Or they should have, if not for some key injuries.

Unfortunately, though, their leading scorer and rebounder Jill Barta was out of the lineup with an ankle injury. And while guard Laura Stockton played, her performance was affected by the face mask she was wearing for her broken nose. All in all, the Bulldogs couldn’t quite get it together in time for the Lady Rebels to escape with a 52-50 victory — and in Spokane, where Gonzaga doesn’t exactly lose many games.

In today’s meeting with UNLV, the Zags will be without Barta once again, but for a much better reason this time around: She decided to forgo her final year of eligibility, graduated, had a brief stint with the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA and now teaches special education in her home state of Montana.

But while the Zags will miss Barta’s production, they also have plenty of players who have proven their worth in this young season, in which the Zags have already compiled a 3-0 record. For one, redshirt senior guard Chandler Smith, who stepped up during last season’s UNLV game to score 17 points and 8 rebounds, is still around and already has a 20-point game this season against Eastern Washington.

While Smith is clearly one of the major players to watch this season for Gonzaga, the team is so deep that not only have they had a different top scorer in each game — senior forward Zykera Rice had 17 against Idaho State, while sophomore guard Jill Townsend had 14 against Montana — but two of their bench players, Townsend and junior guard Katie Campbell, are averaging double figures.

Rice, the natural replacement for Barta down low, is averaging 10.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, but also leads the team in personal fouls and turnovers with 11 in each category already. That said, the Zags as a whole have jumped out to a quick WCC lead in turnover margin at +7.7 while outscoring opponents in the paint 102-62, so for Rice, it’s more about finding a personal balance between her strengths and weaknesses that can only help a team that’s already finding its way. Rice scored 12 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in last season’s meeting with UNLV, a solid effort in a game where so much more could have gone wrong.

Preseason favorites

Gonzaga was picked to win the West Coast Conference this season, picking up 7 of 10 first-place votes in what has become an incredibly competitive pool of teams over the years. Typically a one-bid conference to the NCAA Tournament, the WCC has seen five different schools in the conference tournament championship game in the past four years, and sent three schools in that time — Gonzaga, BYU and San Francisco — to NCAAs by way of automatic bid.

Zags in action

Gonzaga Bulldogs (3-0) at UNLV Lady Rebels (0-2)

When: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Cox Pavilion, Las Vegas, NV

How to watch: Mountain West Digital Network

Notes: This is these teams’ second-ever meeting, with last season ending in a 52-50 win for the Lady Rebels in Spokane. UNLV returns four starters this season to a team that made the Women’s National Invitation Tournament after losing in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament.

Elsewhere in the WCC:

  • Most of the conference is off to winning starts, with only BYU, San Francisco and last season’s conference tournament runner-up San Diego having losses on their records so far. The Cougars dropped a tough game to No. 23 California, the Dons lost at No. 7 Stanford and the Toreros lost their opener to Southern Utah.
  • San Diego has a few games with ranked teams coming up: tonight’s meeting at No. 25 Minnesota (8:30 p.m. ET, BTN+) and next Saturday’s with No. 23 California in the University of San Diego Thanksgiving Tournament (7 p.m. ET).
  • Saint Mary’s is also spending their next two Saturdays facing ranked opponents as they travel north to face No. 8 Oregon State (9 p.m. ET, listen here) before hosting No. 3 Oregon next weekend as part of the Saint Mary’s Thanksgiving Classic (5 p.m. ET, listen here).
  • Loyola Marymount recently took a Pac-12 tour of their own and came out of it 2-0, beating UCLA last week and Arizona on Tuesday. Jasmine Jones led the way for the Lions against Arizona, scoring 19 points. 2018 WCC Newcomer of the Year Gabby Green missed the game due to injury.
  • Ameela Li (Pacific) was named WCC Player of the Week this week after a 27-point performance for the Tigers against UC Davis, which included a late individual run to seal the 83-80 victory.
  • With many recent games featuring WCC teams being played outside of areas affected by the California fires, scheduling hasn’t been too impacted by poor air quality. The one schedule change so far was in southern California, as Pepperdine and UC Irvine’s game last night was postponed.

Full WCC schedule and results