LAS VEGAS — One year after suffering a heartbreaking loss to Utah in its final Mountain West Conference tournament and being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee, the BYU women's basketball team didn't want to leave anything to chance in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game.
The Cougars shot 60 percent from the field, dominated the boards, and enjoyed strong performances from several players in their 78-66 victory over Gonzaga on Monday afternoon at the Orleans Arena.
With the win, BYU captured the WCC tournament title and earned an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. It will mark the Cougars' first NCAA appearance since 2007.
"It's been forever," said guard Haley Steed, who was the tournament MVP and scored 17 points and had eight assists against the Bulldogs. "We hadn't won a conference tournament game in four or five years. Saturday was fun and we wanted to take one more step and win this because we really didn't feel like we were going to get into the NCAA Tournament unless we won this game. We haven't been for a long time. That was our No. 1 goal, over everything else. We wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament this year."
This time, the Cougars weren't going to be denied.
"Last year we deserved to go to the tournament," said coach Jeff Judkins. "We won our conference (in the regular season) handily and we lost on a last-second shot. Haley and these seniors have been around that and realize that's why you don't put it in somebody else's hands. I told my team this all year: 'Don't put situations in somebody else's hands. You take care of it.' They took care of it."
"It's our goal to win this tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament," said forward Dani Peterson, who scored a career-high 18 points to go along with 12 rebounds. "It's going to be so nice knowing that on (Selection Monday) that we can watch it as a team knowing our name will be called. We're excited."
BYU trailed, 32-24, late in the first half before the Cougars enjoyed a 12-3 run to give them a 36-35 edge at halftime. It was a lead they didn't relinquish.
The game was tight early in the second half, too, as BYU nursed a narrow 48-47 advantage at the 15:30 mark.
Then the Cougars scored seven straight points to take their biggest lead, 55-47. They started to pull away as Peterson nailed baseline jumpers and grabbed key rebounds, Jennifer Hamson scored inside, and Steed hit 3-pointers.
Hamson, a 6-foot-7 center, came off the bench in the first half and was an unstoppable force throughout the day. She hit 7-of-11 shots for 17 points and had eight rebounds.
"Last night, I told Jen, 'I don't want to have to come in at halftime and tell you to play harder. This is your night, this is your tournament and your team needs you,'" Judkins said. "She just responds. She wants to be a good player. She wants to do whatever it takes to win. When she's aggressive in the post, our team's a lot harder to play. I mean, she's like a tree, going up there, and just grabs it and lays it in."
Gonzaga guard Haiden Palmer scored 28 points, including four 3-pointers, but the Cougars contained Bulldog post players Kayla Standish (18 points) Katelan Redmon (10 points). The rest of the Gonzaga team scored only 10 points.
"Defensively, our mindset was to not give them anything easy," Peterson said. "Last time we played them, their bigs went off on us. That was our focus, to make their guards beat us from the outside."
BYU outrebounded Gonzaga, 36-21, as Kristen Riley had 10 boards and Peterson had a couple of key offensive rebounds that kept possessions alive for the Cougars.
"Probably the biggest play of the game, I thought, was when Dani got that offensive rebound. I think we were up by seven," Judkins said. "They could have scored and it could have been a different game. This team, they just figured out how to win."
The Bulldogs, who won the regular-season WCC title and are ranked No. 20 in the nation, figure to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite Monday's loss.
"This was a great battle all season against BYU and they won the rubber match," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. "They did things offensively that we struggled with. Last week we outscored them 46-19 in the paint, and this time they turned the tables. … We just got beat by a better team today."
As the clock ticked down to the closing seconds, Judkins took his starters out of the game. Steed came off the floor with tears in her eyes.
"The emotions just came. I couldn't control it," she said. "It was an accumulation of all of the hard work that this team has put in and everything we've been through as individuals and as a team hit me at once. It's all been worth it — all that we fought through. It's a special day for us."
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