LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga women’s basketball team left no doubt.
No doubt who was the best team in the West Coast Conference regular season, rolling to a 14-0 mark by an average margin of 30.6 points. No doubt who was the best team in the WCC tournament, snagging the championship trophy with a 76-48 rout of third-seeded Pepperdine in front of 3,285 Monday at the Orleans Arena, one day after thumping Santa Clara by 40.
And if there’s any doubt remaining that the 17th-ranked Bulldogs (27-4) are the best team in conference history, it seems to be dwindling as well. Portland’s Jim Sollars and Santa Clara’s Jennifer Mountain, two coaches with long-standing ties to the WCC, contend Gonzaga has earned that designation, too.
For good reason, Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves was diplomatic when asked the question. He coached Gonzaga in 2005 and assisted Portland in 1997 when those teams went through the conference season unbeaten, but both lost in the tournament championship game.
“That’s for others to judge,” Graves said. “The way we did it has been very impressive, I’m not going to lie. What I’m most proud of, and where I think we are on a level by ourselves, we never really had an off game. We passed every test.”
Pepperdine (20-11) tested Gonzaga for a half, escaping a 28-14 deficit by dominating the last seven minutes of the half to pull within 34-26. The margin tightened more when Katie Menton hit a 3-pointer 10 seconds into the second half.
Gonzaga responded with one of its trademark runs. The Bulldogs outscored the Waves 33-8 to take command, 67-37.
“Every time we get a run, it comes from our defense,” said tournament MVP Courtney Vandersloot, who became just the second player in tournament history to earn two of those awards. “It comes from getting stops in a row. And another reason is that we have so many weapons. All five players on the floor scored in the first couple minutes of the second half.”
Vandersloot finished with 19 points and eight assists. Seniors Heather Bowman, Tiffanie Shives and Vivian Frieson combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds. Reserve forward Kayla Standish had 11 rebounds in seven first-half minutes and finished with 14 boards and 10 points.
Bowman made her fourth all-tournament team, a league first. She was joined by Vandersloot, Frieson and Pepperdine’s Lauren Bell (16 points) and Miranda Ayim (10) on the all-tournament team.
“We’ve been in this position before,” said Bowman, referring to being in a reasonably close game. “We knew we had to buckle down and play some defense.”
GU’s defense was fine in the first half, but it gave up eight offensive rebounds and put Pepperdine on the foul line 14 times. Those scoring avenues dried up in the second half as GU got stops, rebounds and unleashed its running game.
“I’ve often said from rebound to finish this is as fast as any team in the country,” Graves said.
After shooting just 34.4 percent in the first half, Gonzaga made 17 of 27 second-half attempts (63 percent). The key sequence came after Janelle Bekkering’s jumper gave Gonzaga a 42-31 lead. Bowman followed with a layup, the second time she burned Pepperdine for an easy basket on an inbounds play. Pepperdine inadvertently stepped over the base line on the entry pass. After the turnover, Frieson drove for another basket. Bowman maneuvered for a reverse layup and Bekkering scored on another inbounds play. The 10-0 run took just 2:20.
“Coach always talks to us that it’s a game of runs, as long as we contain theirs and sustain ours,” Shives said. “We like to get out and run.”
Graves removed his three seniors to standing ovations in the closing minutes. He later called them the best leaders he’s had in 10 years as head coach.
“I’ve never been on a team like this,” Frieson said. “It’s going to suck not being able to play with them next year, but these are people that you’re going to love the rest of your life.”
Gonzaga will find out its first-round NCAA assignment Monday. The next challenge was already on Graves’ mind.
“Lastly Zags fans, we’ve got more to do,” Graves told the crowd after his players accepted the championship trophy.
Gonzaga 76, Pepperdine 48
Percentages: FG .254. FT .727. 3-Point Goals: 2-10, .200 (Menton 1-4, Bell 1-4, Conney-Williams 0-1, Snider 0-1) Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 3 (Snider, Jarrell 2). Turnovers: 12 (Jackson 3, Ayim 3, Menton, Bell 2, Cooney-Williams, Shelay 2). Steals: 4 (Jackson, Ayim, Menton, Bell). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .475. FT .737. 3-Point Goals: 6-15, .400 (Bekkering 1-3, Vandersloot 3-5, Shives 0-3, Redmon 0-1, Standish 1-2, Bowen 1-1) Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 4 (Frieson, Vandersloot, Standish 2). Turnovers: 13 (Frieson 2, Vandersloot 4, Bowman, Shives 2, Lorenzo, Petersen, Winters, Redmon). Steals: 5 (Bekkering, Frieson, Shives, Standish 2). Technical Fouls: Frieson.
Halftime– Gonzaga 34-26. A–3,285.