LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga made its earliest exit from the WCC women’s basketball tournament since 2006, falling to Santa Clara 59-58 in the opening round Thursday at the Orleans Arena.
The fifth-seeded Zags let a five-point halftime lead slip away quickly in the third quarter. No. 4 Santa Clara (23-7) fended off several Gonzaga comebacks in the fourth quarter to advance to Monday’s semifinals against the winner of Friday’s No. 1 BYU-No. 9 Pepperdine contest.
“I’m disappointed with the outcome but not the way our team performed,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. “We played gritty and tough. (The game) kind of epitomized what our season has been like. There’s been a lot of ups and downs. This team is tough and they never give in.
“I would have liked to see that last (shot) fall, but these guys have battled for us all season.”
Gonzaga (18-13), which played in the last seven NCAA tournaments, hopes its season will continue in the WNIT.
The Zags, who split with the Broncos in the regular season, struggled against Santa Clara’s aggressive, trapping zone, committing 20 turnovers and shooting just 31 percent from the field. Gonzaga made just 2 of 15 fourth-quarter shots, including 0 of 6 on 3-pointers.
“They get you going faster than you want,” Fortier said. “They play passing lanes very well. Every possession you have to grind it out. We had maybe three baskets that were easy. Everything else we had to work extremely hard for.”
Santa Clara opened the third quarter on a 13-2 run with junior forward Lori Parkinson contributing five points. Gonzaga sophomore guard Emma Stach nailed a pair of 3-pointers late in the quarter to trim Santa Clara’s lead to 46-44.
The Zags pulled even at 52 on freshman forward Jill Barta’s jumper – the first field goal of the game for the team’s leading scorer – and at 54 on a pair of Laura Stockton free throws with 3:20 remaining.
Barta’s three-point play tied it at 58 with 39.7 seconds left. Marie Bertholdt made the second of two free throws with 14.9 seconds left to give Santa Clara a one-point lead. Stockton’s jump shot just before the buzzer was off target.
“We were disappointed in our rebounding effort in the first half, and rebounding is kind of our thing,” said Broncos coach JR Payne, whose team won the glass 24-19 in the second half. “We wanted to do a better job, which we certainly did in the second half.”
Gonzaga never trailed in the first half, but it never led by more than five points. The Zags had some stretches of offense success, including Chelsea Waters’ corner 3-pointer that pushed GU’s lead to 18-13 early in the second quarter.
Santa Clara tied it at 22 and 24 but Kiara Kudron, who missed the last seven games with a wrist injury, fed Shelby Cheslek for a layup to put the Zags up by two.
With just 4.2 ticks left, Stockton pushed the ball down court and dished ahead to Zhane Templeton, who buried a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give Gonzaga a 29-24 edge at the break.
Cheslek paced Gonzaga with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, but the senior center wasn’t able to connect on a couple of close-range shots in the closing minutes.
“It’s tough, I’m sure you can tell,” said Cheslek, her eyes tearing up. “It’s a hard loss. We’re going to keep going and see what have in the future.”
Barta finished with nine points on 2-of-11 shooting. Gonzaga’s bench outscored SCU’s 26-6.
Bertholdt led Santa Clara with 20 points and Parkinson added 19 before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.
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