LAS VEGAS – If it’s true that every Don has its day, Tuesday was that day for the Dons of San Francisco, unlikely champions of the West Coast Conference.
Down 10-0 in the game’s opening minutes, all of those points being scored by BYU’s Lexi Rydalch, USF remained in the moment and did not panic as it eventually joined the party in the WCC women’s championship game at the Orleans Arena by playing a feisty, scrappy style of basketball.
“My best word would be ‘relentless,’ ‘’ USF guard Zhane Dikes said. “You should see us in practice. We practically kill each other out there. In order to be as feisty and scrappy as we are, you have to be in good condition. We were able to play that relentless style. I would describe us as relentless.’’
So would the Cougars, who were perhaps surprised by the way the Dons kept coming at them after defeating them twice during the regular season. As it turned out, that 10-0 lead was the worst thing that could have happened to BYU.
“It’s hard to handle that, especially in the championship game,’’ Rydalch said. “There’s a lot of emotion. We had a letdown and San Francisco got back into it.’’
USF tied the score for the first time at 58-58 with 8:09 to play when eventual tournament Most Valuable Player Taylor Proctor nailed a 3-point shot. The Cougars went back up by four at 68-64 with 1:22 left but the Dons kept coming. At 1:10, Proctor banked in a shot for 68-66.
With 47 seconds left, Rydalch fouled out with 23 points and Dikes hit one free throw for 68-67. The Dons finally got their first lead of the game with 14 seconds remaining when Dikes hit two free throws to put her team up 69-68.
BYU’s Kristine Nielson missed a 3-point shot and Proctor grabbed the game’s most important rebound at 0:05 and was fouled. She made one free throw for a 70-68 lead for USF. Dikes, the Las Vegas native whose dogged style of play epitomizes her team’s collective will, stole the ball with a second left and the Dons exploded in celebration as confetti rained from the rafters.
It was USF’s first WCC Tournament championship since 1997.
“Wow! What a game,’’ USF coach Jennifer Azzi said. “Our team fought so hard tonight. All three games (in the tournament), they put their heart and soul into it. It’s what we set our minds on years ago. I couldn’t be more excited.’’
At 21-11, with only a 9-9 conference record and two losses to BYU coming into Las Vegas, USF is NCAA Tournament-bound. So, probably, is BYU with its 26-6 record and stellar work during the season from start to finish.
“I think we’ll get in,’’ BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “We won our conference (regular season). We won it by two games. We got in the final. As a coach, you want it for them. They were that close from having a fabulous WCC Tournament. These girls will bounce back. They’re fighters, they’re champions.’’
With reddened eyes, BYU’s Kalani Purcell was a little blunter than her coach in sharing her feelings on falling just short in the championship game. She had 17 points and 16 rebounds.
“It sucks. We lost. It’s tough,’’ she said. “We’ll be hung up on it for a little bit. Season’s not over. We’ll bounce back. Same old story – work on things you need to work on. It’s a matter of picking each other up now.’’
USF, meanwhile, probably floated back to San Francisco on the high of winning its first conference title in 19 seasons. Of strategic importance to that title was the 2-3 zone defense the Dons employed in the fourth quarter. It had the effect of limiting the Cougars to 10 points while the Dons posted 16 in their stirring comeback win.
“This means everything for me,’’ said Dikes, who had 21 points. “I’ve been playing in this arena since high school. I was fortunate to have my family in the stands. My parents made so many sacrifices for me to play this game. This is as sweet as it gets.’’
The championship was a validation of USF’s hiring of Azzi in 2010 as it banked on her reputation as an Olympic champion and one of the best players of her generation. She and the Dons suffered through 4-25 and 5-25 seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12 before the sun began to shine in 2014-15 when the team finished 19-14 and went to the WNIT.
The Dons are on to bigger things now and have a few days to celebrate and savor a championship well earned by a No. 6 seed that methodically knocked off the No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1 seeds on the way to cutting down the nets.
“We definitely want to take a minute to enjoy it,’’ Azzi said. “These guys are all excited about the (NCAA) Tournament. We want to make sure we do things right as we prepare for the Tournament.’’
All-Tournament team: Lexi Rydalch (G) BYU; Kalani Purcell (F) BYU; Zhane Dikes (G) USF; Taylor Proctor (F) USF, Most Outstanding Player; Lori Parkinson (F) Santa Clara.
Rydalch’s future: Azzi was asked how she thought Rydalch would fare on the next level in the WNBA. “Lexi is one of the best players I’ve seen. I remember going to their place and seeing her jump up and grab the rim. I think she’ll do very well in the WNBA.’’