Not more than two weeks ago, Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves was discussing the “gritty and tough” qualities Gonzaga redshirt sophomore guard Haiden Palmer possesses.
After scoring a team-high 15 points on Saturday afternoon to help the Gonzaga women’s basketball team shake off a slow start and roll past the Pepperdine Waves in a 66-40 West Coast Conference victory in front of a sold-out Kennel crowd of 6,000, Palmer showed that some of that swag also exists off the court.
“Very, very important,” Palmer said of the Zags’past two victories leading into next week’s final showdown with second-place BYU (23-5, 11-3 WCC).
BYU’s Cougars have conference losses to Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine and San Francisco, while Gonzaga has lost to BYU and Saint Mary’s. If the Zags beat BYU, they will outright win their eighth consecutive WCC championship.
“Now we’re in first.” Palmer said. “As long as we beat (BYU), we’ve got that (outright) title – we don’t want to leave that to chance. I can’t wait. (Coach Graves) always tries to make us not look forward, but I’ve been looking ahead to BYU – we had a tough game at their place and we’ve got to pay them back.
“They’re a great team, but we’re a better team. We just need to play like it.”
First the Bulldogs had to play like “it” against the Waves (12-13, 7-7 WCC) – which wasn’t the case for most of the first half. The Zags (24-4, 13-2) shot 30 percent from the field and trailed for most of the half – by as many as six points at 13:31.
“We couldn’t get stuff going,” Palmer said. “The effort was there, we were just kind of out of sync a little bit and they put us on our heels.”
The Bulldogs finally had surges of better play, beginning when senior Kayla Standish blocked Skye Barnett, and pushed the ball up to Palmer, whose layup brought the Bulldogs within a point at 15-14 at 8:23. Palmer added another layup about a minute later and gave the Zags their first lead of the game at 16-15.
Palmer and Katelan Redmon, who finished with 14 points, helped the Zags take a 22-20 halftime lead.
Standish, the team’s leading scorer, didn’t contribute any points in the first half – but she did have six blocks in the game to become Gonzaga’s all-time leading blocker with 169 – passing Stephanie Hawk’s mark of 167 set 2004-07.
Senior Kelly Bowen, coming off a career-high 19-point night against Santa Clara, finished with a career-high 16 rebounds and point guard Taelor Karr tied her career high of 12 rebounds, set at Kansas State.
“We just needed to relax,” Palmer said. “We were kind of rushing things because the score was so close, but we know we’re the better team and we just needed to calm down and play with confidence.”
The Zags turned up the heat in the second half when Palmer scored six of her 15 in a 22-0 run that blew open a 34-all battle and left Gonzaga with a 56-34 lead with less than 4 minutes to play.
“We got that confidence back and got things going and everything was back to normal,” Palmer said. “Once we got it going, that’s usually how it turns out for us. We just have to get it going earlier in the game. Great team win. We needed that. We all came together at the end there.”
Barnett and Jazmine Jackson were the only two Waves to score in double figures. Jackson’s 11 points led Pepperdine, while Barnett added 10.
“I wasn’t happy at halftime, and I wasn’t happy for a good portion of the game, but I loved the way we finished,” Graves said. “That second half, I think we played as hard as we can play.”