LAS VEGAS – Basketball coaches rarely enjoy the spoils of a championship as much as their players, but Gonzaga’s Kelly Graves gave it a commendable effort Monday.
The top-seeded Bulldogs carved out a 66-55 victory over No. 6 San Diego in front of 3,190 at the Orleans Arena to win the West Coast Conference women’s tournament for the second time in three years and the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“This one I think I can enjoy a little more,” said Graves, long after the nets had been cut and the awards handed out. “The one two years ago was more relief because we’d been close several times and we were really building the program. My assistant (coach) pretended to grab something off my back and throw it to the ground – the proverbial monkey.”
And then he went right back to talking about his players.
“This team really deserved it,” he said. “We were driven, not that the other teams weren’t, but this team more than any other is the most talented we’ve had.
“A special group.”
Group being the proper description. The Bulldogs (26-6) rely on the one-two punch of guard Courtney Vandersloot and post Heather Bowman, the last two WCC players of the year, and they were solid again. Vandersloot, the tournament MVP, contributed 10 points, 10 assists and three steals in the championship game. Bowman scored a team-high 16 points.
Always on the lookout for additional scoring threats – it was senior Jami Schaefer in Sunday’s semifinal win over Loyola Marymount – Graves noted that GU had a third and fourth scorer Monday. Freshman forward Kelly Bowen came off the bench to score 15 points and grab nine rebounds. Janelle Bekkering, who joined Bowman and Vandersloot on the all-tournament team, made two big 3-pointers as the Bulldogs opened a second-half cushion.
“This is the third time we’ve played San Diego in a month, so they’re going to key in on us,” Vandersloot said. “Janelle and Kelly stepped up big.”
Junior Vivian Frieson chipped in 11 points, giving the Zags five players in double figures.
San Diego (19-13), which won three games in three days to advance to the title game, showed no signs of fatigue in the first 25 minutes. Senior forward Kiva Herman, who attended Gonzaga’s team camp when she was at Hudson’s Bay High in Vancouver, Wash., used a variety of silky moves to score 23 points. Gonzaga tried to speed up the pace in hopes of wearing down the Toreros, but wasn’t able to until the last 10 minutes.
Bowen had five points in a 7-0 run as Gonzaga took a 32-28 lead at half. USD scored the first six points of the second half, but field goals by Bowman, Bowen and Bekkering put GU up 39-34.
Leading 42-39, Bowman fed Frieson for a reverse layup and Bekkering hit a 3-pointer. She followed that with a free throw and another 3-pointer off an assist from Vandersloot. Gonzaga’s lead was 10 and it never dipped below six the rest of the way. Bowen had seven points in the last 5:40, including a 3-pointer with 1 minute left to seal it.
“That was probably one of the most intense games of the year,” Bowen said. “But we were ready and up for it.”
In that regard, it probably helped that San Diego was waiting in the championship game. The Toreros upset top-seeded Gonzaga in last year’s title game in San Diego.
“We were kind of rooting to meet them in the final and beat them,” Bekkering said.
Vandersloot said the Zags felt pressure in their familiar role as heavy favorites, to the point where she turned it into motivation.
“We were underdogs because every time we come in here it seems like somebody else comes out with the championship,” she said, referring to GU losing title games in 2004, 2005 and 2008, twice as the top seed. “We had something to prove.”
By proving it, they brought a smile to their coach’s face.
“He’s a pretty laid-back guy and all that, but he wants to win so bad,” Bowman said of Graves. “We’ve been so focused this week. I think he’s breathing a little easier.”