January 4, 2021
WCC check-in: Jenn Wirth, double-double magician
How the Gonzaga senior post is shutting down opponents in the paint
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A little over three years ago, I tweeted this:
Gonzaga was hosting in-state foe Eastern Washington in that November 2017 game. Since the Zags have historically coasted past the Eagles, head coach Lisa Fortier’s decision to play twin freshmen Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth for a combined 34 minutes seemed a no-brainer. The fifth game of the 2017-18 season saw Jenn walk away with six points and three boards, while LeeAnne added four points, two assists and a rebound.
Before the Wirths arrived, by Gonzaga’s standards, its roster was by no means lacking in height. The team was led in scoring and rebounding by Jill Barta, Kiara Kudron and Elle Tinkle, all of whom were 6’2 or taller. But after that season, the latter two graduated and Barta stayed just one further season before graduating and entering the WNBA Draft.
As freshmen, the Wirths were tasked with into a rotation that included Barta and Zykera Rice at the posts. Jenn came in as the 88th-ranked prospect in the country in a stacked recruiting class — again, by Gonzaga standards — that also included No. 49 Louise Forsyth and No. 96 Jill Townsend.
But prestige doesn’t much matter in a program that recruits so aggressively by fit. That much is clear every season, as a ready-made replacement for any starters lost is ready in the wings, whether they themselves have starting experience or not. The depth of the bench fosters lightning-speed development, and it shows in the team’s consistent success year after year.
Back to Jenn Wirth, though, who in her freshman season appeared in all 33 games, shot 48.9% (second on the team) and averaged a respectable 3.2 rebounds in her 18.1 minutes per game. She didn’t have the experience of Barta or Rice, but she had the height under the basket; and she moved like a guard, which opened her up for shots all around the court (including a few tries from 3-point range). In two non-conference games where Barta was either out or didn’t start due to an injury, Wirth stepped in — and in a season-high 26 minutes against Saint Francis U, notched her first career double-double.
Her sophomore season, it was sister LeeAnne who got the bump to the starting five, as Jenn dealt with a hand injury that fall. Even still, it was Jenn who came in second on the team in rebounding and, in the meantime, added two more double-doubles to her career total.
Since her junior year, Jenn Wirth has been Gonzaga’s full-time starting forward, gravitating mainly to the post (though she made her first career 3-pointers as a junior) and reaping the benefits of her height against many smaller West Coast Conference opponents, whether that means asking for the ball herself or drawing defenders down low in order to open up outside shooters.
“Each game there’s going to be something different that’ll be asked of me. It could be scoring, it could be rebounding, it could be blocking out on defense, so where I have the advantage, I want to use that just giving my team second-chance points,” Wirth said after Saturday’s game. “I really have to credit my teammates because they make me look good.”
Now, in Gonzaga’s first three WCC games over the past week, Wirth has posted lines of 14 points and 10 rebounds, 12 points and 14 rebounds, and 11 points and 14 rebounds. (She also posted double-doubles in the two non-conference games before that.) Her six total double-doubles in 10 games — already just one shy of her seven all of last season — are tied for second in the country, only trailing Auburn’s Unique Thompson.
The expectations for Jenn Wirth heading into this season were immense. Her, LeeAnne and Townsend are the core of a senior-led roster whose last game before play abruptly stopped in March was a one-and-out showing in the WCC Tournament. Add in an ongoing global pandemic, and playing to the level that one should in what might be one’s final season sounds extremely daunting.
And still, that’s exactly what Jenn Wirth does.
The trajectory of any successful Gonzaga product doesn’t start by being the best on the team; it starts by learning on the job from the best on the team as much as possible. And when, by her senior season, a Zag player finds herself in national conversations, leading her team to a top-25 ranking week after week, it’s fair to say that journey has been a success.
Around the WCC
After a historic game for San Francisco, noted in last week’s WCC check-in, the Dons swept the weekly conference awards, with Abby Rathbun being named Player of the Week and Ioanna Krimili earning Freshman of the Week. This marks the fourth and fifth times a Don has won one of the two weekly awards this season, the most in the WCC so far — though the first three all belonged to Krimili.
Well-known for their defense, especially in conference play, Gonzaga held its first three opponents to 47 points per game. It’s hard to draw many conclusions at this point, with teams having played between one and three games so far, but right now the Zags and BYU are the only two teams holding conference opponents to under 50 points per game.
Jenn Wirth isn’t the only player in the conference with a penchant for double-doubles: BYU newcomer Lauren Gustin has five in seven games, and in fact averages a double-double with a line that includes a conference-best 12.4 rebounds per game.
After a tough non-conference slate that saw it win just once, Loyola Marymount has turned things up in conference play. Though the Lions are 1-2 overall, their two losses came by just three and five points, respectively, to two of the conference’s best in Gonzaga and Portland. Picked to finish eighth in the conference, LMU defeated Santa Clara over the weekend for its first WCC win of the year (and head coach Charity Elliott’s 100th with the team).
Speaking of Santa Clara, the Broncos are finally playing home games — sort of. With the Santa Clara County public health order banning contact sports still in place, the team finally got to play in an arena that didn’t belong to their opponent for the LMU game, instead making their home at Santa Cruz’s Kaiser Permanente Arena about 40 minutes from campus. Santa Clara’s next scheduled home game isn’t until Jan. 14, after the public health order is due to expire, but its potential renewal could prompt more creativity as the Broncos search for a temporary home base.
With Pepperdine newly on a COVID-related pause, the Waves’ Jan. 2 game against San Francisco was postponed, and their next several games will be, too. Since Portland had recently played Pepperdine, it opted to postpone its Jan. 2 game against Pacific out of an abundance of caution. (Gonzaga, the last team to play Pepperdine before the pause, played on Saturday.) The Waves’ next scheduled game is Saturday, Jan. 16.
See complete results from the WCC’s recent games here.
Two to watch
Subject to change. All times PT; records are in WCC play. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.
Monday, Jan. 4: Loyola Marymount (1-2) at San Francisco (0-2) — 2 p.m., WCC Network
San Francisco has been at the edge of history since its huge win against Sacramento State just before conference play began: head coach Molly Goodenbour’s next win will be the 300th in her career at all levels. But the Dons just haven’t gotten there yet, and are hoping a return home will help them do so. LMU, having just reached a wins milestone of its own with head coach Charity Elliott’s 100th with the team, looks to win consecutive WCC games for the first time since it won its only three of the 2019-20 season from Jan. 9-18.
Saturday, Jan. 9: Portland (2-0) at Gonzaga (3-0) — 2 p.m., WCC Network
It’s the rematch of the century, probably, as the Pilots and the Zags meet for the first time since the former knocked the latter out of the WCC Tournament in March. All last season, Portland had been threatening an upset of Gonzaga, losing by five in Spokane and forcing a second-half comeback when the Zags visited. When Portland finally pulled off the 70-69 win in the tournament semifinals, it was the culmination of a season’s worth of effort from perhaps the hardest-working team in the conference. Now, the Pilots can prove they’re in position to defend their title.