BYU’s women’s basketball team clinched the West Coast Conference title and series sweep with a commanding 82-68 victory in Las Vegas in the highly anticipated third meeting of the rivalry trilogy against No. 12 Gonzaga.
Head coach Jeff Judkins earned his fourth career conference tournament championship and third as a WCC member.
“I’m so proud of my team,” Judkins said. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be here except for them. They played their hearts out, they weren’t afraid to make the play. They weren’t afraid for the challenge.”
Three-pointers were the story of the first half for BYU, with the Cougars starting 9-15 on triples while Gonzaga shot a paltry 1-6 from behind the arc. Brenna Chase drained the deep ball early and often, setting the tone with her first 3 coming 45 seconds into the game. She hit three in a row, and Paisley Johnson hit one of her own at 4:22 of the first quarter.
“I guess when it’s going in, it’s going in,” Chase said. “You kind of just know. It’s not something that happens too often.”
BYU traded big shots near the end of the first frame and began coughing up turnovers while Gonzaga scored with uncontested ease in the paint. The teams traded clutch shots late in the quarter with Shaylee Gonzales connecting on an and-one. Despite Gonzaga’s open shots and BYU’s offensive lapses, the Bulldogs led by just 4 points after the opening stanza.
BYU center Sarah Hamson came into her own in the second quarter, derailing the Bulldogs’ paint offense with a number of aggressive rebounds and a pair of blocks. Hamson’s rim protection and overall perimeter defensive effort from the Cougar guards helped halt Gonzaga’s offense and led to a 16-0 Cougar run.
A clutch Hamson block, followed by another Chase 3-pointer with 4:03 left in the second quarter, ignited a BYU onslaught. The Cougars outscored the Bulldogs 23-7 in the second frame, including a 42-30 advantage going into the locker room. The Cougars saw a major change in rebounding since their semifinal matchup and led Gonzaga 20-14 in first-half rebounds.
A Hamson offensive rebound, followed by two free throws, set the tone early for BYU in the second half.
“Sara the last month has been the Sara that we’ve been waiting for. When she’s a force offensively and defensively, it makes it a lot better for these guys,” Judkins said.
Soon after, everything seemed to turn against the Cougars. Gonzaga charged on a 7-0 run to pull within nine before Chase drilled a 3-pointer with 2:45 remaining in the third frame.
The back-and-forth third quarter concluded with Gonzales taking a hard foul behind the arc just before the buzzer and then making two of three free throws, putting the Cougars up 65-56 to enter the final frame.
Following two free throws by Gonzaga’s post superstar Zykera Rice, the Bulldogs failed to find the scoreboard for the next seven minutes, allowing the Cougars to build the 14 point lead they finished with.
Chase finished the game the same way she started, burying the game’s last points with 20 seconds left from behind the arc to seal the 82-68 victory.
Despite averaging 14.7 points on the season, Johnson was controversially named to the All-WCC Second Team while her teammates, Chase and Gonzales, were named to the first team. While many were confused at the snub, no one could deny Johnson’s performance in the postseason, as she was named the tournament’s most outstanding player — undoubtedly a more important accolade than any regular season recognition.
“I felt very supported by my team after that came out because all of them were standing behind me and very proud of me,” Johnson said. “I told (Judkins) that obviously there is something I needed to prove. I wanted to come out here and do that. Not only to get a tournament championship, but also show the conference what type of player I can be.”
Gonzales was also recognized for her tournament success as a member of the all-tournament team.
BYU’s win secures an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament beginning Friday, March 22. The Cougars will find out their opponent and seeding position during the NCAA women’s selection show March 18, with current projections predicting the Cougars to receive a seven seed.