The Gonzaga Bulldogs may have left their artistry in the locker room but they brought unlimited determination to the McCarthey Athletic Center basketball court Wednesday night.
Erasing the disappointment of losing the West Coast Conference tournament championship game and the sting of being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee the Zags hammered out a 71-57 win over Brigham Young in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The win for GU (28-3), before 3,603 fans, tied the WCC record for wins and was the first in the post-season as a Division I school.
A number of Bulldogs made key contributions along the way but the unquestioned leader was feisty point guard Shannon Mathews, whose wide array of shots on her way to a game-high 24 points made it obvious she was not going to let her team lose.
“I was just glad to get out there and play again,” said Mathews. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to go full strength… . I just wanted to make sure this wasn’t my last game.”
Mathews was severely hampered by a sprained ankle in the WCC championship loss to Santa Clara but showed no effects against BYU, hitting 9 of 12 shots, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, with six assists, four rebounds and two steals.
“She was great. I’ll tell you what, she’s a gamer,” GU coach Kelly Graves said. “People who saw our Santa Clara game, who don’t think it would have mattered, guess what, it would have mattered having Shannon in that game… . She’s our leader, with her we’re a whole different ball club.”
Starting forward Ashley Burke contributed 15 tough points against the big Cougars and had five assists. Forward Anne Bailey had 10 points off the bench and wing Raeanna Jewell had five rebounds as the Bulldogs were just two rebounds short of matching BYU. Also, reserves Rachel Kane, Katy Ridenour and Delphine Lecoultre combined for nine clutch points and Dominique Harris contributed to the defense that forced 20 turnovers.
“They’re very well coached and they execute,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “They’re very balanced team, I was very impressed with them tonight… . Mathews is a really good player, you can see why they lost the tournament, not having that young lady healthy… . There’s no question they should have been in the NCAA Tournament. They have a chance to win the NIT.”
The Zags await the winner of tonight’s SMU at Southwest Missouri State game, the time and site to be determined, though indications are the game will be on the road.
The lack of artistry was obvious from the start for the Bulldogs who struggled to find their shot and occasionally their man on defense. But about midway through the first half, when the score was tied at 16, they went to a tall lineup and ran off nine-straight points, sparked by Lecoultre.
“Our league is more physical than the WCC in the post,” Judkins said. “At the first of the game we did a good job then we started getting fouls and we kind of backed off. He did a good job of subbing in there. Every one of his posts is different… .”
The Cougars missed six shots and had four turnovers while the Zags were scoring on four of seven possessions. GU also went with a tall lineup instead of three guards.
“It’s been an obstacle in our season this year, going in spurts,” Judkins said. “Part of it is we didn’t get a call for 10 minutes. The officiating tonight I didn’t think was too hot.”
Mathews hit an unorthodox floater and followed with two free throws with five seconds left to push the lead to 10 but Mallary Gillespie hit a 3 from the left corner as time ran out to pull the Cougars within 33-26 at the half.
The Bulldogs scored two quick baskets to open the second half to get the lead back to double figures but couldn’t shake the Cougars.
It appeared they were going to break the game open with 12:53 left when they got a two-shot foul and a technical for two more free throws but Lecoultre and Burke came up empty from the line. But after a BYU basket, Kane hit a big 3 from the right corner.
“It was good to see Rachel step up and hit that thing,” Graves said. “It’s really funny, it’s ironic, I think we’re one of the top 10 free throw shooting teams in the country.”
Stephanie Hawk followed with a 15 footer, Burke had a three-point play and BYU never threatened again.
“I think it definitely helps our confidence,” Mathews said. “Since we didn’t get in the NCAA we’re on a new mission, we have a new goal, to win the WNIT. That’s something we can accomplish… It helps us to know we can play with other teams in the country, not just in the WCC.”
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