LAS VEGAS — In its first time playing in the West Coast Conference tournament, the underdog BYU women’s basketball team won the championship game over top-seeded Gonzaga on Monday, ensuring the Cougars a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The noise was deafening in The Orleans arena and emotions ran high Monday as BYU beat Gonzaga 78-66 in the WCC title tilt.
“I can’t be more proud of my team,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “We’ve gone through a lot this year. Things looked bad sometimes and I thought tonight was one of our best performances.”
BYU will go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. The tournament pairings will be announced next Monday.
“I don’t care what conference we’re in, this is fun,” senior Haley Steed said. “We played as a team and I’m so proud of everybody.”
Steed said in an earlier news conference that this final game would be a dogfight, and the game lived up to that label. The win for the Cougars came in their first year in the WCC.
“When I saw Gonzaga sub all their bench in, it kind of hit me,” Steed said. “I saw Juddy [Judkins] starting to sob and the emotions just came, I couldn’t control it. It was just like the accumulation of all our hard work that this team has put in and everything that we’ve been through as individuals and as a team just hit me all at once. It’s all been worth it, everything that we’ve fought through.”
The Bulldogs gained momentum on offense early in the game and pulled ahead of the Cougars. BYU kept fighting and played tight man-to-man defense. A 3-pointer from sophomore Kim Parker gave BYU some bite in its offense.
The shot gave the Cougars some confidence, and the team started making shots and walked into the locker room at half leading by one point, 36-35. At halftime, BYU was shooting 71.4 percent from the field, but had 11 turnovers and Gonzaga had scored 13 points from those miscues.
“Our team, it doesn’t matter who scores the points,” senior Dani Peterson said. “That’s the thing about our team, you can’t guard us. It’s not like we have one person you have to shut down. You have eight, 10 girls, our whole bench is so good. It was a team effort and it feels good to win a championship. It’s our goal, to win this tournament, and advance to the NCAA Tournament.”
After halftime, BYU used a big run to build a 10-point lead. From there, the Cougars maintained a comfortable advantage the remainder of the game.
“It’s a team effort,” Judkins said. “That’s what this team’s been about from day 1. It’s that nobody cares who gets the basket, it’s the team.”
Peterson, one of team’s three seniors, led the Cougar attack, as she had a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
“Tonight was Peterson’s night,” Judkins said. “She’s waited for this a long, long time. I thought she played the game of her life. She’s had a hard career; people don’t realize what she’s gone through to get where she is and for a coach that’s more satisfactory to me than to win games is to see a young lady develop, work and sacrifice and have the success she has.”
Sophomore Jennifer Hamson was a star off the bench, as she played aggressive and had 17 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I can think of a big play that every single person made today,” Steed said. “Jen gave us huge inside presence.”
The Cougars slowed down a bit on offense instead of their usual quick pace. Gonzaga tried executing a game plan of fouling BYU, hoping to gain possession of the ball. The Cougars foiled that plan, however, by hitting 13-of-15 free throws in the game.
And in doing so, BYU came and accomplished what it wanted to do all season: win the championship title.