STANFORD, Calif. – The Gonzaga women got a few mixed messages this week.
They heard about how well they’ve played to win 27 games this season – but not well enough to earn better than a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
They were told how impressed folks are with GU’s big nonconference win here 16 months ago – against a distracted Stanford team that was coming off a big win over Texas.
Another message, unspoken but implied during Friday’s press conference:
The Big Dance is more like a mosh pit when your partner in the paint isn’t Santa Clara or Pepperdine.
That’s a lot to absorb going into Gonzaga’s first-round NCAA game Saturday afternoon against host Stanford.
Fortunately for wing Chandler Smith and her teammates, they received some timely, distilled advice from GU legend Heather Bowman during a recent practice in the Bay Area.
“She told us that she never regretted missing a shot, but did regret when she played timidly or not going 100 percent all of the time,” Smith said.
“The idea is really having fun, playing your best, but not putting too much pressure on yourself.”
If that sounds like another mixed message, guard Laura Stockton has one that’s perfect for the moment.
“We just have to be ourselves,” Stockton said before the Zags took the floor for Friday’s practice.
On Saturday, against a balanced Stanford, that means getting off to a solid start, or at least better than the 13-point hole they found themselves in after one quarter against Oklahoma in last year’s NCAA opener.
Assuming they do that, the Zags need to feed the ball to West Coast Conference Most Valuable Player Jill Barta, whose strong post play and outside shooting will be a load Stanford.
The 6-foot-3 Barta averages almost 19 points and 8 1/2 rebounds. She punishes overaggressive defenses by hitting 87 percent of her foul shots.
Barta was the Zags’ main offensive weapon in their 68-63 regular-season win at Stanford in 2016.
“We just have to be as ready as we were that year,” Barta said before practice Friday at Maples Pavilion.
Fourth-seeded Stanford (22-10) will be ready, too. Waiting in the paint will be 6-3 forward Kaylee Johnson.
Asked about Barta, Johnson said, “We have seen players like that and it was almost like good practice playing against players with a good outside shot, good post moves inside.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge but looking forward to stepping up to it.”
If you’re counting, Johnson spoke in first-person plural, so expect Barta to face frequent double teams wherever she goes.
A key to the game may be Barta’s patience in the paint, finding the shooters.
Guards Emma Stach, Stockton and Smith have heated up lately, shooting 38 percent from long range in their last four games.
“It’s a confidence booster, especially when we started in the beginning (of the season),” Stach said. “But I think just like making the right reads during the game and just like looking for open teammates, so I think that’s just like playing together.”
If Stanford has a weakness, it’s turnovers. For the season, the Cardinal have committed 463; their opponents only 424.
Also, Stanford is a mediocre free-throw-shooting team, hitting 63.9 percent.
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