Basketball is a game of roles.
With each passing season for a team like Gonzaga women’s basketball, strategies change, schemes are shifted and the role which a player is asked to fill is adjusted.
For the 2018-19 GU women, one of the strategical shifts is an even faster offense reliant on a trio of starting guards in senior Laura Stockton, redshirt senior Chandler Smith and junior Jessie Loera.
“[Having three guards] just gives us options. They can all score as well and they do it differently,” head coach Lisa Fortier said. “They complement each other well and they are starting to get the hang of playing with each other, so it’s getting more and more fun every day.”
Fortier’s choice of a three-guard set allows for an increased number of ball screens on offense and gives an already fast Zag offense an even faster pace.
On the young season, the play of Stockton, Smith and Loera has aided GU in its 3-0 start including an opening-night victory over the Montana Grizzlies, which saw six Zag guards combined for 57 of the teams 76 points.
Players and coaches alike described the Zags offense as “flowing” in the early going.
Certainly, the offensive transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. Loera mentioned outlet passing and rebounding as early obstacles, but with time the chemistry blossomed.
“When we play, we play together, we listen to each other, we trust each other and we’ve got each other’s backs,” Loera said.
Transitioning into a starter hasn’t been necessary for Stockton, who enters year three in the starting lineup for GU, however sharing large minutes with two other ball-dominate guards has been a change.
“It’s super nice on me, it’s a nice little breather sometimes and it is really hard on other teams,” Stockton said. “A three-headed monster, is what I like to call it. We are all pushing it, and any of us can get [the ball] and run the break and we are on the move before other teams can even realize they didn’t get the rebound.”
Smith’s favorite part of the three-guard set is the offense’s ability to take off and go, with any of the three ball-handlers bring the ball up court.
As the only fifth year senior on the team, Smith is asked to play a unique role by her coach.
“She is very smart, she is heady, she is skilled, she is not as much of a power player as much as she just has a variety of skills with the way she can pass and she can shoot,” Fortier said.
As the team’s leading minute getter in the 2017-18 season, Smith played a variety of roles for the Zags, a habit which looks like it will continue in 2018-19, as she has already led the team in points and steals, while also making a hard-nosed effort to grab rebounds.
“I just want to be a contributor and I just want to help, whatever the team needs I want to do,” Smith said.
Stockton and Smith have been playing together for four years and a sense of comfort has developed. In their final season on the court, the pair will be asked to adapt, adding the strong defense, precision passing and energy of Loera to their guard grouping.
While the starting line-up and big minutes are familiar to Smith and Stockton, Loera started only seven game last season for GU, instead spending much of her time on the court alleviating either Smith or Stockton.
During her time coming off the bench, Loera said she learned the responsibilities of each position from the elder guards and credits them with helping her develop into the role she will be filling this year.
The leadership of GU’s upperclassmen guards help sophomore Jill Townsend make the leap to collegiate basketball, she credits them for assisting in her development and understanding of the system at GU.
“I learned a lot from [the upperclassmen guards], last year they led me,” Townsend said. “Even this year, they’re stepping into a bigger leadership role and they’re really bringing the energy.”
Townsend is a member of GU’s second unit of guards that have proven that they aren’t slouches either.
In the season opening game against Montana, junior Katie Campbell and Townsend paced the GU offense after coming off the bench in the first quarter.
Campbell had two steals, leading to five points, and Townsend added a resounding block and seven points in the opening quarter. Their play ignited the GU offense leading to a 16-6 run to end the half.
“You just need to know what they need and try to fulfill that,” Katie Campbell said of her mentality when coming off the bench. “Obviously, I try and come in and if they need defensive stops, if they need to score, if they need assists or just high fives, you just need to know what they need and kind of fulfill that for them.”
On the night, Townsend paced GU’s offense with 14 points, while Campbell trailed closely behind with 13 points. Townsend contributed an additional six rebounds and three steals, while Campbell notched four steals and shot 75 percent from beyond 3-point land.
“Katie’s been knocking down shots all year and Towny (Townsend) has been playing really confident,” Fortier said after the win.
For the GU starters like Smith, having an exciting bench that can provide relief is a tremendous benefit. The fifth-year senior described the unit as a new wave that knows its role and can sub into a game at any time to overwhelm opponents.
“I feel like wwith this year’s team, anyone can have a great day and I think that is awesome for us,” Smith said.
Ian Davis-Leonard is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter @ilowe714.