LAS VEGAS — Kelly Graves, the Gonzaga women’s coach, had said earlier in the West Coast Conference tournament that for his team, it all starts with defense.
Turns out that wasn’t just lip service.
After a sluggish first 10 minutes, the 18th-ranked Zags turned up the heat on Brigham Young, sprang to a 16-point halftime lead and had things mostly their way the rest of the day in a 71-57 victory that ensures GU’s sixth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
They could be Seattle-bound, as Alaska Airlines Arena hosts first- and second-round games.
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“I hope so,” said Graves, recalling two earlier trips to Seattle. “We travel so well. We have pleasant memories there.”
The Zags started slowly, getting eaten up inside by 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson, the WCC player of the year, who scored BYU’s first four baskets as the Cougars took an 8-6 lead.
Midway through the first half, Gonzaga (29-4) cranked up the defensive pressure to three-quarter court, trapping and swarming, and it took an immediate toll. BYU missed 21 of its last 24 shots of the half and committed 14 turnovers, and a 14-0 run propelled GU to a 30-14 halftime lead. Lindsay Sherbert and Keani Albanez knocked down threes in the last 80 seconds.
The lead grew to 20 before BYU (26-6) cut it back to 10 inside the seven-minute mark. But Gonzaga was never truly threatened.
“We changed the way we played,” said Graves. “That’s when we started picking up three-quarter court, so they either didn’t have a lot of time to run offense, or No. 2, to get some turnovers. I think we did a really good job.”
“They just locked into us,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. “Jen (Hamson) was open, but we couldn’t get the ball to her.”
All-league guard Lexi Eaton had a miserable day, shooting 2 for 18 and committing eight turnovers.
“You can’t have one of your best players go 2 for 18,” Judkins said. “That doesn’t help.”
On the other side, GU guard Haiden Palmer whiffed on eight tries from the field and had four turnovers, but others stepped up, which didn’t surprise Graves.
“It’s been this way all year long,” Graves said. “Look at Keani Albanez. She had zero, three (in the first two WCC games) and then 20 today. That’s how we’ve been doing it. It’s the strangest team I’ve ever coached.
“I’ve always believed, if you’re going to give us six and four (points and rebounds), give us six and four every night. Individually, we’re not consistent, but as a team, we’re very consistent.”
Graves calls it his deepest team in his tenure at Gonzaga.
“If my first six played my second six 10 games, it’d be 5-5,” he said.
Center Sunny Greinacher (16 points) was the tournament’s outstanding player, and joined on the first unit by teammates Sherbert and Jazmine Redmon. Hamson and Pacific’s KiKi Moore also made it.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org