From staff reports
MALIBU, Calif. – The stakes couldn’t have been higher for the Gonzaga women on Saturday afternoon.
With the team’s first conference championship and the program’s second trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line, pressure and nerves were building for the Bulldogs leading to kickoff against Pepperdine.
Giana Riley settled the nerves with a goal in the third minute and clinched the Zags’ first West Coast Conference title with a hat trick during a 3-1 win over the Waves at Tari Frahm Rokus Field.
“Giana had the day of days, holy cow, unbelievable,” Gonzaga coach Chris Watkins said. “We were worried, coming here not many teams win, they go years without losing on this field. We knew we had to come out and play a physical, strong game, but you get an early goal and another early goal and things settle down nice for you.”
Riley scored on the Bulldogs’ (13-3-2, 6-1-1 WCC) first shot of the game. She scored on a free kick in the 19th minute to give Gonzaga a 2-0 lead at halftime.
“We knew the job wasn’t done,” Riley said.
Pepperdine (9-4-5, 6-2-0) cut the lead to 2-1 on a goal by Karina Gonzalez in the 58th minute.
Riley answered with her third goal in the 73rd to secure the victory. With her 12th goal of the season, she also became the conference’s leading goal-scorer.
Riley’s previous nine goals came in nonconference play. She picked an opportune time to return to form.
“We were playing for our lives today,” Watkins said. “There’s a lot of people that have put the Gonzaga uniform over the years that haven’t (won). It’s our first title ever, so to have this moment we’re really excited and really proud.”
Gonzaga clinched the WCC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and will make its first appearance since 2005, when the Zags were an at-large bid and lost to Southern California 1-0 in the opening round.
The tournament bracket will be announced on Monday. First-round games will be played Friday through next Sunday.