Gonzaga fell to BYU in the West Coast Conference tournament title game 78-66 despite a career-high 28 points from Haiden Palmer. Now, Gonzaga will wait to see if its 26-5 record and tournament history earns an NCAA bid.
LAS VEGAS — In the here and now, the Gonzaga women will no doubt have some nervous moments until selections are made for the NCAA basketball tournament, thanks to Brigham Young’s solid 78-66 victory Monday in the West Coast Conference tournament final.
But there were echoes of the past as well in the game. The last time the Zags lost in March, back in the Elite Eight of the 2011 tournament, they couldn’t control Stanford’s Ogwumike sisters. This day, although the hurdle was more length than strength, they were unable to cope with BYU’s 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson and 6-1 forward Dani Peterson.
Still, the Cougars’ sparkplug was 5-4 point guard and tournament MVP Haley Steed, whose 17 points and eight assists keyed BYU’s first march to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and gave Zags coach Kelly Graves a flashback to ex-GU All-American Courtney Vandersloot.
“Haley Steed is the player that makes that team good,” said Graves. “She’s a terrific ballplayer, and I know a little bit about great point guards.”
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“To me,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins, “she’s Peyton Manning.”
The Zags (26-5) never had a defensive handle on the Cougars (26-6), who shot 60.4 percent. Peterson (18 points on 8-of-10 shooting, plus 12 rebounds) got repeated midrange shots from the baseline as Gonzaga had to help on Steed’s penetration, and when that wasn’t going awry, GU was allowing post position to the towering Hamson, who scored 17 points.
“That’s the thing about our team,” Peterson said. “You can’t guard us. There’s not one person you have to shut down.”
In the teams’ first meeting, BYU raced to a shocking 70-40 win in Provo, after which the Zags got revenge in Spokane, 77-60. In that one, Graves pointed out, “We outscored them 46-18 in the paint. This time, they turned the tables (26-20).”
Gonzaga guard Haiden Palmer, a transfer from Oregon State, was her team’s most consistent offensive option, scoring a career-high 28 points.
A pair of 7-0 runs in the second half allowed BYU to break from a 45-all tie as the Zags couldn’t find steady offense inside from Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon — who combined to go 9 of 27 on field goals — or any defensive antidote to the hot Cougars.
BYU out-rebounded Gonzaga, 36-21, and the Zags had only 11 defensive rebounds to the Cougars’ nine on offense.
Gonzaga won the WCC regular-season title, but was denied a fourth straight tournament championship by the first-year WCC member Cougars.
“I don’t care what conference we’re in,” said a beaming Steed. “This is fun.”
Now the Zags must sweat out NCAA selections, while knowing they get to host the first weekend if they’re selected.
“I feel good about our chances,” said Graves. “We have a really nice resume, we don’t have any bad losses. We had three top-50 wins, we won the outright conference championship by two games, and we have a pedigree, a history in the tournament. This team has won six NCAA games the last three years.
“I told the kids, keep your heads up, and hopefully we’ll be playing at home in two weeks.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org