Countdown to 2015–16: Q & A with Gonzaga senior point guard Georgia Stirton

Stirton, driving against George Washington in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. Gonzaga reached the Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of GU Athletics)

Georgia Stirton fields a phone call in the Gonzaga basketball offices on the Friday before classes begin for the upcoming academic year.

It’s a sunny, summer day in Spokane, Wash., and the campus is quiet. That calm before the storm of Freshman Move In. Preparations will soon begin for the upcoming season of Gonzaga women’s basketball, which has become one of the Spokane staples. Last season, the average attendance for Zags women’s basketball was over 5,300, 13th best in DI.

That’s one of the first things Stirton, a 5–8 senior point guard who came to GU last year by way of North Idaho College, in nearby Coeur d’Alene, noticed about this place. A different fan demographic comes to cheer on the Zags women’s team: more families than students, but still downright raucous. Last spring, Stirton’s parents and brother visited from Australia. They witnessed GU clinch yet another West Coast Conference regular season championship; they saw the Kennel bumpin’, and began to understand just what this place is all about.

Stirton started every game for a team that finished 26–8 and reached the Sweet 16, banishing widespread media speculation that the program was poised to take a step back after longtime head coach Kelly Graves took the job at Oregon in the spring of 2014.

Stirton averaged 5.7 points, a team-best 3.1 assists, and 2.3 rebounds. During conference play, she boosted her scoring and field goal percentage, and showed a propensity to come up big when her team most needed it. Like a conference road trip to BYU in late February, following consecutive losses. The Zags beat the Cougars, and Stirton dropped seven dimes — with no turnovers.

Perhaps the biggest revelation of this interview: the pronunciation of Stirton’s last name. On broadcasts last season, it always seemed to waffle between “Strite-on” and “Stirt-in”.

Stirton announces, unequivocally, that the latter pronunciation is correct. “I don’t know how people mess that up,” Stirton says, chuckling.

The word was already out about her game. Now, it’s on to the name. Shouldn’t be too long now.

Alley Whoops: Your progression at point guard was one of the key factors in Gonzaga’s end-of-season surge. What was it like, adjusting to the pace of DI play?

Georgia Stirton: I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the step from junior college to DI. I went from being really good, a main player at my JC, to coming in and trying to fit in within a really good team.

It was kind of weird — here I was, a junior, but it was almost like I was a freshman, learning plays and finding my own way. The biggest thing was confidence. You have to have belief, that you’re here for a reason. Basketball-wise, it was about confidence, and learning to trust myself.

As a starter at the start of the season, I was anxious. I got intimidated by the names of big schools and big players. But by the end, you realize that you’re here for a reason. It all comes back to confidence; understanding that there’s gonna be really hard patches. A lot of players have experienced them.

When we played Tennessee (in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16), I was one of the only players who hadn’t been on that stage before. You have to expect it’s going to be really tough. But being surrounded by coaches and teammates who have always been so patient, and understood that it was a transition for me to from JC to DI, really helped me come into my own. It helped me get it together.

AW: What was the dialogue like with coaches, especially? Did it take extra individual work to begin to adjust to DI?

GS: Yeah, all of those things. Stacy Clinesmith is the coach for my position, and I’d go into the office all the time to go over film with her. I don’t really like watching myself play so much, but it’s amazing how much you can learn from watching yourself, and getting advice from someone like Stacy, who’s so experienced. (Clinesmith is a prep legend in the Spokane area — in both soccer and basketball — and played several seasons in the WNBA.)

DI was a huge shock, and within a few weeks of games, it really hit me: I had to put in extra work, and get my own workouts in, on top of practice. I was far behind in the weight room — that was a really big struggle. I was trying to catch up, and that meant putting in a lot of work.

AW: Chris Carlson, your coach at North Idaho College hailed your offensive skill set. Did that develop through your individual workouts with Sedale Threatt in Australia?

GS: Oh yeah, definitely, most of the credit in my development goes to Sedale Threatt. I started working with him in high school. His program was mostly for men, and he put me in a situation where I was really exposed, in terms of weaknesses and building strength. He’s got such great experience, having played in the NBA. He taught me some really amazing stuff, and really helped me improve.

He was a huge believer in me. He was the one, when I finished high school in Australia, and didn’t know what to do next, who told me to try and go to the U.S. for college. He’s followed me the whole way. Darryl McDonald, “D-Mac” (a legend in Australia’s National Basketball League) was also an instructor in the program. Those two really, really helped me.

AW: What were those sessions like with Threatt and McDonald? Mostly skill-based?

GS: Yes. It was a lot of individual work, and I did a lot of sessions with just them and me. Since the program is mainly composed of guys, it was tough being with faster and more athletic players. They’re so much stronger. So, you have to find ways around that, find ways to make things work. I’m definitely not the strongest and fastest (laughs). So, it was very helpful for me to learn in that environment.

AW: In your development for Gonzaga last season, did you begin to get the sense that you could dictate the game from point?

GS: Watching film, and having a greater perspective for things going on on the court, definitely helped me. I began to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team. I don’t really score a whole lot, so I want to facilitate.

That means understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those around me. A lot comes from understanding how players react to certain things. Being a point guard and a leader, you have to know how to communicate with them.

AW: Emma Stach really came on strong as a freshman in ‘14–15. Since she also plays point guard, what is your dynamic like?

GS: Emma’s awesome. She’s fearless. That’s the difference between me and her. She has a lot of confidence. For me, it takes awhile to warm up to the game. At the start, I always feel like I’m anxious. Emma comes off the bench, and she starts shooting threes, and taking it to the rim. We need that. It gives us fresh legs.

When I think of Emma, I think of that 4 OT game (Gonzaga beat San Francisco, 91–84, in four overtimes, last February). She came in and played so well. Being nervous just doesn’t exist in her mind. And she’s great off the court as well.

AW: When you were placed in the Corvallis regional last March, everyone seemed to be picking Oregon State, the hosts, to reach the Sweet 16. Did that motivate you? (Gonzaga stunned the Beavers in the Round of 32.)

GS: I think we liked the idea of being an underdog, and having things going against us. It was an amazing feeling — well not amazing, but a funny feeling — to have everybody against you. That idea of proving people wrong.

Our coaches told us that we’d worked so hard throughout the year to make it so far. All we had to do was everything we’d practiced, and just put it into play.

There were a lot of personalities on our team that wanted to be the underdog and come out and prove people wrong. Keani (Albanez) and Shaq (Nilles): they kind of get angry when people go against them. That Oregon State game was so much fun. It’s a great memory.

AW: Lisa Fortier was in her first season as head coach of Gonzaga last season. What was it like, playing for her?

GS: Lisa is just very understanding. She’s fair, but firm. You can talk to her about everything. The main thing was patience — her patience, knowing it would come around for me.

I never, ever had a doubt that she believed in me, that I could be just as good as the point guards who’ve played here. Well, maybe not Sloot (Courtney Vandersloot). But she always had that belief.

Photo courtesy of Gonzaga Athletics

AW: Last season’s team showed great resiliency. Despite several losses, toward the end of the season, you played some of your best basketball in the NCAA tournament.

GS: Oh yeah. I feel like our whole team…everything we’d worked on at that moment, and our chemistry, clicked. We’d had struggles in the WCC tournament (Gonzaga lost to BYU in the semifinals), and after winning the conference regular season, we actually lost two games. Our slump was really weird. I think we just needed that reality check.

Getting into the NCAA tournament, our effort and everything came back alive. As silly as it sounds, we got used to winning. Looking back, we needed those two losses. Playing those two games in the NCAA tournament — and even losing to Tennessee in overtime, it was a really good run.

AW: What do you see as the greatest strenghts of this season’s GU team?

GS: I don’t think people know what to expect. We have a lot of talent. Like Jill (Barta) and Kiara (Kudron)…who both redshirted last year. They are both great. Jill (a 6–3 forward) is such an awkward matchup.

We’re really strong at guard, and with our bigs, as well. We have Laura Stockton, who’s a freshman, but plays with a lot of experience. I don’t think people are ready, or know what to expect from us. It will be interesting to see where we’re different from last year.

AW: There was a lot of hype surrounding Chandler Smith’s transfer to GU from Nebraska this summer. What have you seen from her, so far?

GS: I actually just had an individual workout with her. She’s a bit taller than me, but she’s definitely a guard. (Smith is listed at 6–0.) I see her as a kind of Keani Albanez-type player.

AW: Do you get to go home to Australia much? What do you miss most about it?

GS: Yeah. I do get to go home in the summer — but it’s winter in Australia, then.

When I’m at Gonzaga, my mum’s really good about sending me packages with all the Australian goodies, like two-minute noodles. That’s my favorite thing on the planet. I’m never without them.

I miss the normal things, like family. But they’re happy I’m experiencing something different.

AW: What is your major at Gonzaga? Have you given any thought to the next step, after this season?

GS: I’m a special ed major. I really haven’t thought too much about the future, though. Either way, I want to play basketball, and I don’t see myself stopping after this season. Not really sure about the rest.

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