Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves ran into the stands and high-fived fans as his players climbed a ladder to snip apart the net to celebrate their 10th consecutive conference championship.
The No. 22 Bulldogs captured the West Coast Conference regular-season title by answering several rallies by Saint Mary’s to win 75-65 in the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“It never gets old,” Graves said. “You get one, you get two and all you want is more.”
But before Gonzaga (25-4, 15-2) could have a new banner printed, it first had to settle a score with a scrappy Saint Mary’s (20-8, 10-7) team that beat the Bulldogs in overtime on Dec. 28 in Moraga, Calif.
Led by the 19 points from senior Haiden Palmer, the Bulldogs willed their way through a game that resembled more of a back-alley brawl than basketball game.
The first half started like the last three games for Gonzaga, in which the Bulldogs got good looks at the basket but couldn’t seem to hit their shots.
The Gaels stormed out to an early lead as Zags players missed several shots close to the basket.
Behind the early scoring of 6-foot forward Danielle Mauldin, the Gaels led 15-10 before Gonzaga made a run to take the lead on a Lindsay Sherbert 3-pointer that made the score 20-19.
A couple more 3s by Keani Albanez and Palmer and the Zags looked like they were going to run away. But the Gaels went on a run to make reel them in a bit at 29-25.
Palmer hit shots as Mauldin, who finished with 14 first-half points, hit several free throws for the halftime score of 35-29.
Blocks, turnovers and missed shots kept either team from scoring for 2 minutes into the second half until senior guard Jazmine Redmon drove the lane and hit a layup.
The Zags built leads of 11, 13, and 15 points, but Mauldin, Jackie Nared and Kate Gaze kept leading the Gaels back.
Those three players “are difficult to stop,” Graves said. “Saint Mary’s was very game. They made us earn it.”
The Gaels closed to within six points at 71-65 with less than a minute to go, but Shaniqua Nilles hit four successive free throws to seal the victory.
Gonzaga had four players score in double figures, including Palmer’s 19. Sophomore guard Keani Albanez hit four-3 pointers and scored 14 points. Nilles and Redmon both scored 10.
Mauldin led the Gaels with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Gaze had 17 points and Nared had 14.
Albanez praised the play of Palmer and Redmon, who attacked the basket to allow her to get open for her long-range shots.
“I just had to stay ready and stay alert,” Albanez said.
After the game, Graves clung to the WCC trophy and held it like he didn’t want to give it up.
“The league has never been as good as it is this year,” he said. “It’s not easy. Ten years in a row. That’s a lot of really good players and coaches that made that happen.”