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Injuries forcing Gonzaga women to rethink rotations ahead of NCAA Tournament

March 16, 2019

Even with injuries to a pair of key players, the Gonzaga women won’t necessarily be out of their depth in the NCAA Tournament.

However, they probably won’t complain if their first partner in the Big Dance prefers the waltz to the tango.

Selection Monday is almost here. Fortunately, Lisa Fortier and her staff have had a few days to make some adjustments.

One day wasn’t enough, and it showed in the Zags’ 82-68 loss to BYU in the West Coast Conference title game.

The apparent loss of Laura Stockton, the top point guard in the league; and versatile bench player Jill Townsend, is problematic.

Stockton is as savvy as they come, a triple threat and consummate ball-handler who makes everyone else better, not to mention her 8.9 points a game.

Townsend is a backup in name only. She averaged 21.7 minutes a game, finished the regular season as the No. 2 scorer with 9.4 ppg.

Both are fearless and hard-driving, and their emotion has helped drive this team to the best regular-season in program history. Their aggressive style will be missed.

But assuming the 28-4 Zags get the five seed they deserve, a first-round NCAA game on a neutral court is eminently winnable.

Senior Zykera Rice will hold sway in the paint along with the 6-foot-3 Wirth twins, LeeAnne and Jenn.

Smith and shooting guard Katie Campbell will be joined by point guard Jessie Loera, a starter herself until sidelined by an early-season concussion.

Then it gets tricky, because the Zags are down to nine healthy players, and two of them have scarcely played.

At the end of most games this season, the “minutes played” column on Gonzaga stat sheet was thing of beauty. Often, seven players would log 20 minutes or more, but seldom more than 30.

“We’ve relied on our depth all season,” senior guard Chandler Smith after the Zags rallied to beat Saint Mary’s in the WCC semifinals on Monday.

“People are going to step up like they’ve done all year, so we’re just going to take one play at a time,” Smith said.

Or perhaps one substitution at a time.

Suddenly, depth is an issue, a season-long strength now a weakness. Fortier’s frequent rotations, usually 40 or more per game, must be tweaked and lengthened.

Fitness shouldn’t be a problem. Most players have logged 30 minutes or more on several occasions.

The loss of two experienced ball-handlers puts a heavy burden on junior Jessie Loera, who played 36 minutes against BYU.

The other starting guards, Smith and Katie Campbell, logged 34 and 33, respectively – well above their season averages.

The problem is less severe in the frontcourt, where Rice and the Wirths have rotated all year. However, the versatility of Townsend will be sorely missed. A 51 percent shooter (44 percent from three), she also averaged almost five rebounds and was the team’s No. 2 scorer (9.4ppg) despite playing just 21 1/2 minutes a game.

Townsend was equally at home coming in for Smith as for one of the post players.

True freshman Melody Kempton of Post Falls (4.2 points per game) has plenty of experience (13.8 minutes per game) is able to mix it up inside. She averages a team-best rebound every four minutes on the court and shoots 44 percent from the field, but hasn’t attempted a 3-point shot all year.

True sophomore guard Louise Forsyth (2.1 pgg) has little experience. She appeared in 13 games last year and 17 this season. If the BYU game is any indication, her minutes will go up this week; after playing a combined 10 minutes in the previous four games, she logged 12 against BYU.

However, neither player scored against the Cougars.

The only other eligible player is sophomore Gillian Barfield, who has played just 26 minutes all season.

The wild card will be the first-round opponent. The Zags should fear a quicker, guard-heavy team such as BYU, whose quickness often left Rice the Wirth twins on the perimeter.