LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The San Francisco women's basketball team has matched a feat unknown in nearly two decades as the Dons advanced to the West Coast Conference Championship finals for the first time since 1997. The Dons defeated No. 2-seeded San Diego 65-57 on Monday afternoon in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in the semifinal round.
With the win, the Dons are knocking on the door of 20 wins for the first time since 1997, and at 19-12 USF owns their best record since 2002. Meanwhile, the Toreros fall to 24-6 after the semifinal defeat.
For the first 20 minutes of action, the Toreros controlled the game, leading by as many as 15 points after Sydney Williams drained a 3-pointer with 2:49 remaining in the first half.
"[It was an] ugly first half for us; dug a hole," head coach Jennifer Azzi said after gutting out the victory. "But I was really, really impressed with the way that our team fought like crazy in the second half and picked up their defensive energy. It's a credit to how badly they wanted it, and how hard they worked. I have tremendous respect for San Diego, for their program. They've been here for so long and have been around the top for a long time. They're a very good team and program that we beat today."
The contest started tight, as has been the case in the two regular season meetings between the two teams. USF had its first lead of the night after Zhane Dikes drained the 3-pointer with 16:40 on the clock. The first points from the floor for the Dons, USF led 6-5 at that point.
The Toreros regained the lead minutes later after points in the paint for Katelyn McDaniel set the score at 11-10 in favor of the No. 2 seed. A elbow jumper for Anna Seilund and the ensuing free throw knotted the game at 17-all the game's first tie.
San Diego used a 9-0 run to gain the momentum, hitting on seven of their eight attempts in the eight minute span. The offensive spurt grew to a 15-2 run after three consecutive layups for the Toreros, with Malina Hood, Sophie Ederaine and Katelyn McDaniel all getting in on the action. San Diego wrapped up the period with the 42-29 advantage, shooting 63 percent in the period, out-rebounding the Dons 20 to 13, and out-assisting the Dons 13 to 5.
The Dons scored four of the final six points in the period to close the gap to 42-29 heading into the break, but halftime was a welcome respite for the Dons to regroup. By the break, San Diego was shooting 63 percent compared to USF's 35 percent shooting and owned a +7 advantage on the glass
"[Coach Azzi] was very calm and she came in and said, 'we know that first half wasn't our best basketball but we know what we have to do'," junior Zhane Dikes said after the game. "I just told the team we came too far to let it go. We know what we have to do. We have to come out with energy and I think we did that. I am so proud of my team."
The second period was a reversal of fortune for the Dons, and in a good way.
"They did a good job coming at us in the second half and we didn't match theiir intensity," San Diego junior and leading scorer McDaniel said after the USF victory. "We didn't keep our confidence up and attack them like they were attacking us. It put us on our heels and we were fighting throughout the second half."
USF opened the half with 11 unanswered points, capped by a triple from Aundrea Gordon had the Dons down 40-42 with 16:06 on the clock. After Seilund knotted the game at 45-all with 13:01 to play, San Diego's Malina Hood answered with a 3-pointer of her own. Out of the media timeout, Taj Winston got in the lane for the layup and Paige Spietz stepped in for the charge with 10:43 remaining.
The Dons continued to play aggressive defense coupled with effective offense to regain the lead with 10:28 to play. Taylor Proctor's layup was followed by a 3-pointer for the junior from Colorado Springs, Colo. The Toreros coughed it up on their next possession and the Dons capitalized with Dikes, a Las Vegas native, sinking a pair of free throws from the line. USF would keep the momentum and the advantage throughout the remainder of the contest, winning 65-57.
USF was paced by 18 points from Winston, who finished 8-of-12 from the field. Dikes contributed 16 points and five rebounds in her home town, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the line and Proctor finished with her seventh double-double of the season, with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high four assists.
Despite San Diego's torrid first half, the Dons and Toreros both finished the game with 38 percent shooting from the field.
The Dons now advance to the WCC finals for the first time since 1997's NCAA tournament season, the last time USF made it to the Big Dance. USF will face BYU in the finals Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. The game, televised on ESPNU, will be the first post-season WCC meeting between the Dons and the Cougars.
"I came to San Francisco to build a program. I came here to win a championship," Dikes told USF radio. "What's great about our team is everyone came in here to win a championship and they all wanted this. That's what USF is about, and we're going to try to do that tomorrow."