LAS VEGAS – This time Gonzaga cooled off and the opponent didn’t.
The Bulldogs had no defensive answers for BYU’s inside-outside attack as the Cougars dominated the final 25 minutes and cruised to a 78-66 victory Monday in the WCC women’s tournament championship game in front of 2,941 – perhaps 80 percent GU fans – at the Orleans Arena.
“They’re just solid, they played harder than we did and they did some things offensively we struggled with,” said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, whose team suffered its first tournament loss since the event moved to Las Vegas four years ago.
Second-seeded BYU (26-6), which won two of three games against the Bulldogs, will make their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Graves believes the top-seeded and 22nd-ranked Bulldogs (26-5) are in great shape for an at-large berth and they would play at the McCarthey Athletic Center, one of 16 opening-round sites.
“We have a really nice resume, no bad losses, three top 50 wins, we won the conference championship by two games and we have pedigree,” he said. “This team has won six NCAA games the last three years.”
Both teams shot lights-out early, similar to Gonzaga’s semifinal win over Saint Mary’s on Saturday. While the Gaels ran out steam in the second half, the Cougars just got stronger.
Late in the first half, GU led 34-29 despite BYU hitting 68 percent of its shots. Gonzaga didn’t miss much either, particularly sophomore guard Haiden Palmer, who hit her first seven shots and scored 16 points in the first half.
BYU closed the half with a 7-1 run, sparked by tournament MVP Haley Steed’s driving layup and 3-pointer, to lead 36-35.
The Cougars got a lift from 6-foot-7 reserve forward Jennifer Hamson, who dominated GU inside. She hit all three of her shots in the first half and finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Hamson was the primary reason BYU outscored GU 26-20 in the paint – a reversal from Gonzaga’s 42-16 edge in a 77-60 win over the Cougars on Feb. 25 – and a 23-4 advantage in bench points.
“She got lower in the paint,” Bulldogs senior forward Kayla Standish said. “Inside the key, she’s kind of unstoppable for us.”
The Cougars had numerous options and got quality looks when they weren’t turning the ball over 19 times. Steed, who has suffered three torn ACLs in her college career, made three 3s and finished with 17 points and six assists. Many of Steed’s passes went to Dani Peterson, who repeatedly drained mid-range baseline jumpers en route to 18 points. WCC player of the year Kristen Riley was quiet with just five points, but she had 10 rebounds as BYU dominated the boards 36-21.
“We’ve gone through a lot this year and things looked bad at times, but today was one of our best performances,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “Gonzaga came out on fire and we were fortunate to shoot it well to stay with them.”
The Bulldogs never led in the second half. Palmer’s 3 – she finished with 28 points – tied it at 45, but Steed made three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to start a decisive 19-6 run.
Gonzaga’s offense couldn’t keep up. They scored 32 points in the first 15 minutes, 34 in the final 25. Standish (18 points) and Katelan Redmon (10) combined to make just 9 of 27 shots.
“Executing on offense, we were kind of going wild for a little bit, on our own island,” Standish said.
BYU was content to limit Standish and Redmon and force GU’s guards to make plays.
“We got a little soft, especially inside,” Graves said. “At the under 8 (minute) timeout, I said, ‘It’s going to take five of us to get back in the game.’ We went out and took a 3, a one-pass jumper and made a poor drive.”
Standish and Palmer were joined on the All-Tournament team by Peterson, Hamson and Steed.