LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga’s starters had taken their final bows, another WCC women’s basketball tournament championship had been secured and the last seconds were melting away.
GU fans rose to their feet and offered a standing ovation. Coach Kelly Graves joined right in, applauding his players and then doing the same as he turned and faced the crowd, the majority of the 7,898 at Orleans Arena wearing Bulldogs’ gear.
The top-seeded Bulldogs (29-4) won their fifth title in six years, riding a suffocating defensive effort in the first half to a 71-57 victory Tuesday over the second-seeded BYU Cougars that sealed their sixth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. They’ll learn their matchup Monday during the selection show.
BYU (26-6) appears likely to receive an at-large berth.
“We played as hard as we could play,” Graves said, “and for good stretches of the game I thought we played as well as we could possibly play.”
It all started with defense. BYU’s 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson, the WCC player of the year, scored eight points in the first 4-plus minutes before Gonzaga switched to a three-quarter court trapping defense.
The results were staggering. BYU made 1 of 15 shots and committed 13 turnovers in the final 15:50 of the half.
“BYU is a rhythm team. We really needed to get them out of their rhythm, and that’s what we did,” said senior guard Jazmine Redmon, who joined Lindsay Sherbert and Sunny Greinacher (MVP) on the all-tournament team, along with Hamson and Pacific’s Kiki Moore. “Sometimes they were pretty frustrated.”
Gonzaga had eight steals by halftime and a 13-0 edge in points off turnovers. The Bulldogs led 22-10 after a 14-0 run fueled by Sherbert’s seven points and Redmon’s four.
Sherbert’s 3-pointer and another trey just before the horn by Keani Albanez, who had a game-high 20 points, hiked Gonzaga’s lead to 30-14. Sherbert made 8 of 13 3s and finished with 46 points in three games.
“Lindsay’s a starter,” Graves said. “She’s on the floor in almost every close game at the end. She always gives us a lift.”
Hamson didn’t score again until the 13:23 mark of the second half.
“What we tried to do is push her outside as far as possible,” Greinacher said, “and pressure outside so they can’t have easy lobs.”
Said Graves: “We started going to a three-quarter court press because of BYU, mainly last year. It takes time off the clock and if they reverse it a couple times you’re defending them for 10-15 seconds instead of 25. Secondly, if you can pressure them and get some steals, so be it, but it also got them scrambling a little bit and those lob passes (to Hamson) were from 30 feet instead of 15.”
Sophomore Shelby Cheslek, who had three solid tournament games, poked away several entry passes from Hamson and blocked four shots.
The Bulldogs led by 20 before BYU closed within 10 twice inside the 7-minute mark. Albanez replied with daggers both times, a corner jumper and a 3-pointer.
“I say it every game,” Graves said. “It’s always someone new, but it’s always someone.”
Greinacher had 10 of her 16 points in the second half. Sherbert finished with 15. Redmon added eight points, six rebounds, five assists and three of Gonzaga’s 13 steals.
Hamson finished with 24 points, many coming when GU was content to guard the 3-point arc and keep BYU off the foul line. Sophomore guard Lexi Eaton, who averages 17 points, was 2 of 18 from the field and scored 15 points, 11 at the free-throw line.
“They just locked into us,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “We couldn’t get the ball into Hanson – she was open – because of the pressure.”
The final margin for points off turnovers: GU 19-0.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group,” Graves said, “and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group work harder.”