SPOKANE, Wash. — Jill Barta has experienced March Madness in both Montana Class B basketball and the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, the former Fairfield Eagle says one of her favorite memories is from a high school game against Choteau.
She was fouled and stepped to the free-throw line for two shots, just as she had multiple times in her career.
But for these two shots Barta tried something different — shooting with her non-dominant left hand.
The four-time state champion drained both.
Her coach's reaction?
“The look he gave me was good enough,” Barta said, chuckling.
After compiling a 104-0 high school record at Fairfield and narrowly winning her final game in double overtime against Malta to secure the state championship her final year, Barta has become a nationally-recognized athlete at the Division I level.
The redshirt junior has led the Gonzaga Bulldogs to a regular season West Coast Conference championship, averaging 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. On Tuesday, she was announced as the league’s Player of the Year.
Barta still shoots 100 free throws left handed during some practices. She leads the team in free-throw percentage, making 86.7 percent this season.
The team is 24-5 (17-1 WCC). The only hiccup in conference play was a home loss to St. Mary’s (Calif.).
Barta has come a long way in four years.
She was recruited to Gonzaga by former head coach Kelly Graves, who departed Spokane for the University of Oregon before she arrived.
“I fell in love with the people, the class size, and it was close to home,” she said.
Barta said she always dreamed of playing at the Division I level. She said being a “gym rat” and a team player has helped her accomplish this goal.
Transitioning from Fairfield, the “Barley Capital of the World” and a population of less than 800, was challenging. Barta admitted to avoiding periodically congested Interstate 90 through Spokane when she arrived.
“Freshman year was a rough year,” she said of her redshirt year. “I got lost around Spokane quite a bit.”
She also underwent a transition in the style of her play.
“I didn’t need to shoot 3’s in high school,” Barta said.
Developing the 3-point shot has made Barta a more versatile asset for the Zags. The forward leads Gonzaga in 3-point percentage at 35 percent.
Before the loss to St. Mary’s in mid-February, Barta and the Zags were on a 15-game winning streak dating to late December.
“We were playing an unselfish game,” she said. “We were working the full shot clock, working together, and utilizing each teammates' best resources.”
One of the wins during the streak was in Provo, Utah, at Brigham Young. Gonzaga had not defeated BYU there since Barta’s redshirt season in 2015.
She tallied 34 points and 15 rebounds. It was her sixth career 30-point game and her ninth double-double of the season.
Barta said the win at BYU is one of the highlights of her Gonzaga career — and despite returning to Spokane on Saturday night after a two-game road trip, she still made it to Montana on Sunday to snowmobile.
The taxing daily schedule during basketball season does not prevent Barta from returning to her home state. While in Big Sky Country, she enjoys snowmobiling, snow biking and dirt biking.
Barta’s success this season has earned her national recognition. She is one of 10 finalists for the Cheryl Miller award, recognizing the top small forward in NCAA Division I women’s basketball.
“It was an honor,” Barta said. “It put things into a bigger picture.”
Barta and the Bulldogs earned the top seed in this weekend’s Gorilla Glue WCC Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. A championship there secures Gonzaga a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Jill Barta is accustomed to memory making during March Madness.
She did at Fairfield, where she scored 41 points in a 60-55 double-overtime win over Malta for the state championship. Barta scored the final 21 points and also hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer in the first overtime to avert her first high school defeat.
Now she'd like to make another memory with another WCC title and an NCAA Tournament run to add to her decorated career.