SPOKANE – Jill Barta is accustomed to playing in front of large crowds. Montana high school basketball fans flocked to Fairfield to watch Barta and her Eagles teammates win game after game from 2010-14, accumulating a perfect 104-0 record and four state championships during Barta’s high school career.
The more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same for Barta, now a redshirt junior on the Gonzaga women’s basketball team.
“We packed the house at Fairfield all the time, but it’s different coming here and you have a sell-out game like (Jan. 20) when we have 5,000 fans come in, and there’s not one single one who doesn’t know who you are, doesn’t know your favorite color, doesn’t know your song, doesn’t know what you drive,” Barta said. “It’s a little hometown-ish, where you go back to your hometown and everyone knows those exact same things about you. It’s something I enjoy a lot, just being around here where everyone knows who you are, everyone knows your name. They’re very, very, very friendly around here, so it feels like family.”
Barta’s right at home in Spokane. Moments after the Bulldogs’ 71-44 win over visiting Santa Clara, Barta can be found in the stands at the McCarthey Athletic Center visiting with fans. She loves Spokane, and Spokane loves her.
“She’s a fan favorite by a lot of our fans who come to our games,” said Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier. “In the community, she’s great with the kids. She’s my daughter’s favorite player. She wants nothing but Jill Barta, Jill Barta, Jill Barta. She pretends she’s Jill Barta at home when we’re playing basketball, and I know there are a lot of little girls who look up to her and the way she plays the game. Hopefully she’s kind of leading the way for the next generation of Zags to come through here.”
For as dominant as Barta is on the basketball court – and she’s remained dominant at the collegiate level, averaging 18 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season – she’s equally as approachable and selfless off the court. She’s on schedule to graduate this spring, majoring in special education.
“I am so excited. I am right now placed in an elementary/middle school Special Ed classroom, and it’s by far been one of the best three weeks I’ve had,” Barta said.
Teaching is Barta’s future, but basketball is her present. The 6-foot-3 forward has continued to develop her game and has become “every other team’s probably biggest nightmare,” according to Fortier.
“She’s doing a great job,” Fortier added. “She’s still showing that she can score through double-teams, she can score one-on-one, for sure, inside. She’s different than most post players because she’s so effective from the perimeter, as well, and, this year, has really added a rebounding element to her game.”
She leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, ranking second in the West Coast Conference in scoring and fourth in rebounding. She’s also eighth in the conference in steals per game (1.9) and sixth in blocks per game (0.9) all while playing as efficiently as ever. Barta is seventh in field goal percentage (48.1), second in free throw percentage (86.0) and 10th in 3-point percentage (34.5).
But as this year’s young Gonzaga team has found its footing – the Zags are 15-4 overall and currently own a 10-game winning streak – that has meant less Barta and more team. After leading the team in scoring in six of the first seven games, Barta’s led the team just five times in the past 12 games.
“I think early on we weren’t shooting the ball that well from the perimeter, so she was really being asked to do a ton. I think she was putting a little bit of that on herself, and we were still getting shots from our other players, but I think she is a competitor, she wants to win and she took a little of that burden,” Fortier said. “Then she started drawing a lot of help, and I think that’s what kind of opened up our offense.”
“It’s always good to get off to a good start and stuff, but most importantly it’s good if we get off to a good start as a team,” Barta added. “That’s what we’ve been focusing, not maybe just me getting off to a good start, but Chandler (Smith) getting off to a good start, Zykera (Rice) getting off to a good start, and then I kind of come in and fill it a little bit. But it’s definitely important for all of us to come in, get rolling and hit them early.”
Zykera Rice is contributing 13.2 points per game and Chandler Smith is adding 11.2, proving the Zags have scoring options beyond their two-time all-conference selection. It’s not so different from those four years at Fairfield when Barta was dominating alongside players like Molly Klinker, Kaylynn Coverdell and Kourtney Coverdell, all of whom also went on to play college basketball.
Barta still monitors the exploits of her former teammates while visiting home when she can.
“(Spokane is) definitely like a homey feeling, but Montana will always be that home,” Barta said. “I sneak back probably every other weekend. When we have a home game or we have a Sunday off, I’m always going back to Missoula, back to Fairfield, just nosing around.”
No, things haven’t changed much at all.