By John Crumpacker
#WCCHoops Columnist John Crumpacker is onsite at the 2016 West Coast Conference Basketball Championships and will be providing exclusive content throughout from the men’s and women’s tournaments.
LAS VEGAS – Just as it was a year ago, it will be BYU and San Francisco for the WCC women’s championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Although the Cougars will be favored in Tuesday afternoon’s title game at the Orleans Arena, the Dons are a team to be reckoned with.
Just ask No. 3 seed San Diego and No. 2 Saint Mary’s how formidable coach Jennifer Azzi’s team is come tournament time. The Dons, seeded 6th, bounced both the higher-seeded Toreros and Gaels to earn a rematch against No. 1 BYU.
“Hopefully, they’ll do a service to women’s basketball and the West Coast Conference,’’ Saint Mary’s coach Paul Thomas said after dropping a thrilling 67-65 decision to USF in Monday’s semifinal.
In the other semi, BYU had an easier time of it in dispatching Santa Clara 87-67 as Lexi Rydalch scored 25 points to pass one legend and tie another. She moved past Danny Ainge into third place on BYU’s career scoring list, either gender, and, with 2,490 points, equaled the career total of the late Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount.
The first point Rydalch scores in the championship game will give her the WCC record.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing,’’ Rydalch said. “He’s such a legend. It’s such an honor to be in the same category with him. I couldn’t do it without my coaches and teammates.’’
Added coach Jeff Judkins, turning to Rydalch, “Congratulations, kid. That’s a great achievement. She also passed Danny Ainge today (for BYU’s career scoring lead). It’s been great coaching Lexi for five years. Coach’s dream. I’m going to miss her.’’
Suffice to say, the rest of the conference won’t.
In the USF-Saint Mary’s semi, the teams put on a show in the fourth quarter and ended up scoring more in the last 10 minutes than they did in the first 20. USF’s 30-25 edge in the fourth was the difference in a riveting game that was not settled until Taylor Proctor of the Dons hit two free throws with eight seconds left to push her team’s lead to 67-63.
“This, again, was all heart,’’ Azzi said. “They definitely wanted it. I’m so proud of them.’’
Earlier, Zhane Dikes nailed a 3-point shot with 39 seconds remaining to give the Dons a lead they would not relinquish at 60-59. Two turnovers by the Gaels under smothering defensive pressure by USF in the final 38 seconds kept Saint Mary’s at bay and sent the team back to Moraga with a 24-7 record and an iffy status vis a vis the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we deserve to be (in),’’ Thomas said. “I think we’re a team that can win a game or two.’’
At 20-11, the Dons will almost certainly have to defeat BYU to secure the NCAA’s automatic bid. And how might that be accomplished?
“The No. 1 thing we need to stop is Lexi Rydalch,’’ said Proctor, who had 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the semifinal. “She’s a great player. (Our focus will be on) stopping her in transition. We have to box everybody out. For us, we need to control the tempo and play USF basketball.’’
“Wanting it more and playing together.’’
It was that desire, and marksmanship, that propelled USF into the championship game. Otherwise, Saint Mary’s dominated the stat sheet as it pounded the Dons on the boards (48-32), outscored them in the paint (38-18) and had a 14-point advantage in bench points (21-7). The telling stat was USF’s 3-point shooting, 8 of 21 for 21 points, compared to 3 of 10 for nine points by Saint Mary’s.
“USF is a tough side,’’ Saint Mary’s Lauren Nicholson said after scoring a game-high 22 points. “They made some tough shots at the end. Full credit to them. We weren’t able to come back.’’
During the regular season the Dons dropped both games to BYU, 66-57 in San Francisco and 65-62 in Provo.
“BYU is obviously an incredible team,’’ Azzi said. “They’re very well balanced. They’re just a very, very tough opponent.’’
The Cougars had a five-point lead on Santa Clara at halftime (32-27) and only a six-point edge at the end of three quarters, 53-47, before a 34-point surge in the fourth quarter put the game to rest. BYU improved to 26-5. Santa Clara is 23-8.
“We were a little jittery at the start,’’ Rydalch said. “Santa Clara does a great job of starting the game with pressure. We were rushing it. (Eventually) we just relaxed. … The biggest thing is toughness, both physically and mentally. We responded well and the momentum carried us into the fourth quarter.’’
Now that her team is playing for the title, Rydalch said, “We love the championship game. That’s what we work for all season. We want to defend it.’’
The Dons may have something to say about that. Come tournament time, they generally manage to make a little noise.
NOTES: One of Rydalch’s teammates, Kalani Purcell, fell just shy of a WCC Tournament record for rebounds in a single game. Through three quarters, she had 16 boards and was on pace to tie or break the mark of 18 by Saint Mary’s Jermisha Dosty from a 2002 tournament game against Portland. Purcell finished with 17 rebounds. … USF players wore a pink stripe on the shoulders of their uniforms in memory of the grandmother of teammate Hashima Carothers, who died recently. “It’s really hard for her,’’ Dikes said of the junior forward. “This is for her.’’