LAS VEGAS – The Orleans Arena doesn’t look anything like the McCarthey Athletic Center. The seatbacks are maroon, similar to Loyola Marymount’s colors. Instead of a Bulldog at center court, there’s a large logo promoting the West Coast Conference championships.
But it sure felt like home for the Gonzaga women’s basketball team Sunday. Spurred by Jami Schaefer’s season-high 20 points, Courtney Vandersloot’s steady play and the vocal backing of perhaps 90 percent of the 1,803 in attendance, the top-seeded Bulldogs defeated No. 4 Loyola Marymount 74-63 in the WCC tournament semifinals.
“We’re in Las Vegas?” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves asked. “It looked like Spokane south. There were a lot of people out there. Sunday morning, daylight saving time, lost an hour … this was a breakfast type of game and they came out and were loud and we really appreciate that.”
Gonzaga (25-6) advanced to the championship game for the fifth time in six years. The Bulldogs are 1-4 in previous title games, winning in 2007. GU will face No. 6 San Diego in a rematch of last year’s championship game won by USD 70-66. The Toreros, who have won three games in three days, knocked off No. 2 Portland 74-64.
The Bulldogs gave their fans something to shout about early. GU made 11 of its first 17 shots, but still couldn’t shake the Lions (18-12). A 12-2 run finally gave Gonzaga breathing room at 33-21 with seven minutes remaining.
Schaefer hit a 3-pointer and a baseline jumper. Her steal and pass to Vandersloot for a layup capped the burst. Schaefer had 11 points in the first 13 minutes. Her season high was 10 points – and that came 30 games ago in the season opener. Schaefer missed six weeks with a knee injury before returning a month ago.
“That’s how basketball goes,” Schaefer said. “Some nights you’re on, some nights you’re off. Today I was on.”
Graves offered a simple explanation.
“With each passing day, she’s getting more and more healthy,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. When we needed it she stepped it up. That’s what clutch seniors do.”
Vandersloot, who was voted WCC player of the year earlier this week, delivered 21 points and eight assists. Heather Bowman added 12 points and 13 rebounds. Vivian Frieson chipped in six points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Gonzaga was smooth in the first half, capitalizing on numerous LMU turnovers to unleash its transition game. GU had a 13-2 edge in points off turnovers and a 6-0 advantage on fast-break points.
Gonzaga made 19 of 35 shots, despite hitting only 1 of 6 to close the half, and led 45-30 at intermission.
The Bulldogs’ offense cooled off in a ragged second half. Their shooting percentage slipped and their turnovers climbed. They also couldn’t keep the Lions off the offensive glass. LMU had 16 of their 24 offensive boards in the second half, but the Lions couldn’t overcome game-long shooting woes (23 of 76, 30.3 percent).
“We had some great looks, but we missed opportunities,” LMU coach Julie Wilhoit said. “That was the difference. I thought Gonzaga shot their minds out and absolutely took advantage of every moment.”
LMU closed within 10 early in the second half, but Bowman’s basket from the low block and Vandersloot’s jumper restored GU’s 15-point lead. The Lions were within 12 three more times. Gonzaga responded each time, on Janelle Bekkering’s jumper, two free throws by Vandersloot and two free throws by Schaefer. LMU scored just before the buzzer for the 11-point difference.
GU made 14 of 19 free throws in the second half.
“Our game is pretty simple,” Graves said. “We try to get the ball inside to Bowman when we can and we did a pretty good job of that early. And we like to get the ball in Courtney’s hands and let her create. Everybody just kind of plays off those two. To have a third scorer step up like Jami, that makes us tough.”