Gonzaga advances easily to NCAA women's tournament after slow start against Saint Mary's.

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LAS VEGAS — Saint Mary’s women’s basketball coach Paul Thomas was willing to call it “progress,” which shows how far the rest of the West Coast Conference is from Gonzaga.

The Zags, who scored 106 points in each of their two previous meetings with the Gaels in 2011, were held to 34 fewer Monday, but still overran Saint Mary’s, 72-46, to win their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

“It never gets old,” said a happy Janelle Bekkering, Gonzaga’s senior guard.

Especially since Spokane is a first- and second-round host and Gonzaga will get to try to match its first Sweet 16 appearance of last year in front of the home fans.

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The Gaels slowed the tempo against the Zags, whose 86.1-points-per-game offense leads the nation. It was successful early, as Saint Mary’s built a 15-8 lead and Gonzaga seemed flustered at the pace.

But then GU, 20th-ranked, stepped up the defensive pressure and went on an 11-0 run to take the lead for good. Then, and later, they were fueled by senior point guard Courtney Vandersloot of Kentwood High, who ignited the burst with a three-pointer.

“It was tough,” Vandersloot said, referring to the slower pace. “But I was proud of the way we reacted.”

Vandersloot’s fingerprints were all over the victory. She tied her career high with 16 assists, giving her 30 in the two games here, had a team-high 18 points and made both of her three-point attempts.

In the second half, she had a reverse layup on the baseline in which she looked to pass, saw 6-foot-4 Gaels standout Louella Tomlinson looming and used the rim to shield the defender.

“Of all the moves she’s made in four years, that was one of the best,” said Zags coach Kelly Graves. “I’m glad a national-TV audience could see what we’ve seen.”

It was a big day for the 5-foot-8 Vandersloot, who also was named winner of the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, given to the nation’s top player 5-8 or shorter. The three-time WCC player of the year was MVP here and joined on the all-tournament team by Gonzaga center Kayla Standish.

“Everybody she plays with is better,” said Thomas. “She could pick up four of you guys in this room, and you’d all be great basketball players.”

In the second half, as Gonzaga built momentum, Vandersloot flew to the corner to reject a shot attempt by Saint Mary’s Jasmine Smith out of bounds, signaling a TV timeout, and the Zags’ bench came almost to half court to welcome her and her teammates, who led 49-29.

Asked how the pace of the game got away from Saint Mary’s (19-12), Thomas said, “Vandersloot, (Katelan) Redmon, Standish, everybody they have in uniform over there.”

It was Gonzaga’s 36th straight victory against a WCC opponent and pushed its record to 28-4. The Zags haven’t lost since falling to Notre Dame on Dec. 29.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

ST. MARY’S, CAL. (19-12) — Tomlinson 3-8 1-1 7, Gaze 1-8 2-2 5, Davis 0-2 0-0 0, Coatney 0-5 1-5 1, J. Smith 1-13 4-4 6, Carbonel 4-7 0-0 8, Levesque 0-0 0-0 0, Richey 0-0 0-0 0, Puletasi 0-0 0-0 0, Bailey 0-0 0-0 0, Mauldin 5-8 9-11 19. Totals 14-51 17-23 46.

GONZAGA (28-4) — Bekkering 3-7 0-1 7, Vandersloot 7-13 2-2 18, K. Redmon 8-16 1-1 17, Standish 4-13 0-0 8, Bowen 3-5 0-0 8, Schick 0-0 0-0 0, Lorenzo 0-0 0-0 0, Winters 0-0 0-0 0, Golden 1-1 0-0 2, Reader 0-0 2-2 2, J. Redmon 2-2 0-0 4, Raap 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 31-61 5-6 72.

Halftime — Gonzaga 28-20. Three-point goals — St. Mary’s, Cal. 1-15 (Gaze 1-4, Tomlinson 0-1, Davis 0-1, Coatney 0-1, Carbonel 0-2, J. Smith 0-6), Gonzaga 5-7 (Vandersloot 2-2, Bowen 2-2, Bekkering 1-3). Fouled out — None. Rebounds — St. Mary’s, Cal. 37 (Mauldin 10), Gonzaga 34 (Standish 10). Assists — St. Mary’s, Cal. 9 (Tomlinson 4), Gonzaga 23 (Vandersloot 16). Total fouls — St. Mary’s, Cal. 8, Gonzaga 21. A — NA.

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