20181013 Fan Fest 2018-EVanBramer

Senior Chandler Smith waits to take a free throw during Gonzaga's Fan Fest on Saturday, Oct. 13.  

As head coach Lisa Fortier fulfilled her obligatory post-game availability, a herd of young children darted through the bowels of the McCarthey Athletic Center and briefly interrupted the interview with a cacophony.

Perhaps their presence was a parallel for Gonzaga, with its season is in the infancy stage after opening the year with Numerica Fan Fest Saturday evening.

Following a 27-6 campaign in 2017-18, which included a West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championship, the Zags return all but three of their players, with Emma Stach and Emma Wolfram gone to graduation, and Jill Barta leaving the program to pursue teaching opportunities.

Saturday's four-quarter, 16-minute, Blue-White scrimmage ended in an 18-18 tie, with the White team, led by senior Laura Stockton closing the game on a 12-2 run after trailing 16-6 late in the second quarter. Stockton paced all scorers with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting while redshirt senior Chandler Smith posted eight points on 3-of-8 shooting for the Blue squad.

"We're a little rusty. That's why it's nice to do this," Stockton said of the game, which featured 11 combined turnovers and 32.5 percent shooting." You can get the jitters out and figure out what we need to work on in a live situation. It's good for us."

Stockton, who's regarded as a highly competitive player, was animated throughout the event. After winning the Hot Shot competition against junior Jessie Loera, she let out an audible celebration and struck the air with a fist pump.

As the second half of the scrimmage progressed and the deficit shrunk, more emotion poured out of the 5-foot-8 guard. When she tied the game on a righty scoop layup and Smith missed a 3 from the left wing with less than 10 seconds to play, Stockton pleaded with the referee to ensure it was the White team's ball, giving it one last chance to secure a victory — though it was unable to get a final shot off.

"Laura, I know, wanted to win so badly. She wants to win everything so badly," Fortier said. "Her, Zykera (Rice) and Chandler are constantly reminding me 'it's my last this and it's my last that.' I thought [Stockton] had a very nice second half. When they were down, she could have started pressing and trying to make too much of something. She stayed very calm and it was great to see."

With Barta, the team's offensive catalyst and reigning WCC Player of the Year, no longer sporting GU threads, the Zags intend to embrace the transition game this season. They'll call upon their litany of ball-handlers with Stockton, Loera, Smith and junior Katie Campbell all capable of directing the offense, Fortier said.

"We're planning on going (fast)," Stockton said. "We've got really fast posts. Hopefully, the fast break will be big for us."

Searching for easier buckets in transition could mitigate some of the Zags' potential shooting concerns after they shot 29.4 percent beyond the arc a season ago, even with Barta and Stach, who combined to shoot 37.3 percent from deep and made 79 of the team's 160 3-pointers, in the fold.

Yet Fortier said she is encouraged by the progress her athletes made as shooters during the offseason, citing Campbell, Smith and sophomore Louise Forsyth as early-season standouts.

When the game does slow down, Rice, a Second Team All-WCC member who averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game on 49.7 percent shooting last year, projects to be a consistent source of offense in the post. She'll be flanked by sophomores Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, as well as freshman Melody Kempton, who was an ESPN top-100 recruit. Anamaria Virjoghe, a 6-foot-5 transfer from the NAIA school Northwest Christian, will redshirt this season before suiting up next year.

“We have Mel coming in, who, thank the Lord if I get super tired, she gets to just run up and down the court,” Rice said.

That might become reality as Fortier said she’s been impressed with the energy and aggression Rice has played with thus far but added she hopes to see other post players emulate that assertiveness.

Despite the loss of its best wing stopper in Stach, GU will likely remain a formidable defensive unit after ranking 58th among 349 NCAA teams in points allowed per game last season.

Smith, who won the 3-point shootout over Forsyth, proved to be a jack-of-all trades in her first year as a starter with the Bulldogs as her defensive assignment sometimes ranged from point guard to power forward. Buoying the backcourt defense are Stockton, Loera and Campbell, all smart and aggressive defenders.

“We play really hard and they really care about each other,” Fortier said. “We have veteran decision makers … I think we have a lot of versatility at the guard spots.

“But we need to continue to work on our rebounding. We have so much to work on. I can’t even say what we need to keep working on, because, really, all of it. But they’re doing some good things. I haven’t had a day where I’ve thought ‘ugh, we’re in for it.’ I think we have lots of potential.”

Jackson Frank is the senior sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @jackfrank_jjf.

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