SPOKANE – Some of Montana’s best female athletes in recent memory had sensational performances on the college courts and tracks in 2017.
Former Billings Senior stars Christina Aragon and Taylor Mims put together impressive seasons in the Pac-12 at Stanford and Washington State, respectively. Former Twin Bridges standout Peyton Ferris helped lead the Montana State women’s basketball team to its first NCAA Tournament since 1993.
But none of the women had 2017s quite like Jill Barta, the former Fairfield basketball star who has evolved into one of the best players in the West Coast Conference. She averaged 16.8 points and six rebounds per game during the 2016-17 season, her redshirt sophomore year, and is already averaging a near double-double this season at 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
“In high school, I was definitely a low-post player,” Barta said. “I’ve really extended my game to being a 3-point shooter, a driver, a mid-range shooter, kind of almost anything around. In high school, I didn’t really need to shoot 3s. It was mostly right around the basket. Now I’m more of a three-dimensional player. That’s helped my game so much.”
Barta has improved her 3-point shooting every season she’s been at Gonzaga, going from 33.3 percent during her first season to 36.3 last season and 37.5 percent this year. The 6-foot-3 forward leads the Bulldogs in both 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage through the team’s first 12 games this season.
She also leads the team in rebounds, is tied for the team lead in blocks and ranks second on the team in steals.
“Ending last season being the leading scorer and stuff, I knew I needed to pick it up on defense and rebounding,” Barta said. “This offseason, I worked on getting a little stronger, a little faster, more in shape, so I could play 30-35 minutes per game, and I think that’s really helped out.”
Barta’s certainly taken her game to the next level this season, already twice earning West Coast Conference player of the week honors, but the big breakout came during the 2017 portion of last season. She scored 554 points last season, the ninth-best single season in Gonzaga history, and became just the second sophomore in program history to surpass the 1,000-point plateau.
She earned all-conference honors, but Barta saved the best for last.
“(Fairfield coach Dustin) Gordon always said, ‘Big players play big in big games,’ and that’s something that’s always stuck with me,” Barta said.
When the stakes were the highest, Barta had her best collegiate game. She scored 37 points in the championship game of the West Coast Conference Tournament to help the Bulldogs to an 86-75 win over Saint Mary’s. Barta finished the game making 12 of 19 field goals, including five of eight from 3-point range, and converted all eight of her free throw attempts to score the tournament-record 37 points and earn tournament MVP honors.
The performance elicited memories of Barta’s final a high school game, a 41-point outburst to help Fairfield to a double-overtime win over Malta in the 2014 Class B state championship, the final touch on Barta’s high school career of 104 wins and zero losses.
“I think it’s something I take for granted,” Barta said. “It’s different when you get to college: You don’t really think about high school, you’re thinking about the next game. It’s crazy to think that we didn’t lose one game. I’ll talk to people and they’ll be like, ‘You didn’t lose one game? What are the odds?’ We should have lost one game, but we never did. Looking back now, it’s something I shouldn’t take for granted. High school is a big step in your life. I’m definitely lucky to play (Division I) basketball and experience that level, and maybe that’s why I take it for granted. I talk to Gordon all the time, ask him for advice and just kind of laugh about things. They’re definitely great memories to share.”
Barta has many high school memories to fondly recall and plenty from 2017’s accolades and honors, but she’s hoping for more in 2018. The Bulldogs are 8-4 on the young season and won their conference opener on Dec. 28, a game that saw the team score 60 first-half points on its way to a 99-72 win at Pacific.
Barta, who is still working her way back to 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury against Washington State on Dec. 6, led the way with 15 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals against Pacific.
“My favorite part (about Gonzaga’s team) is that we’re so young,” Barta said. “Our ceiling, we’re not reaching it yet. We play each game, we’re getting so much better. We haven’t reached our high point yet, so I’m so excited with this team. I’m really excited to see what 2018 has to bring for us.”