2015 WCC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT CENTRAL
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED - WCC WOMEN'S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP - SEMIFINALS
LAS VEGAS - Over the course of 4 ½ fateful hours on Monday, Sin City became Upset City.
Neither the No. 1 nor No. 2 women's teams in the West Coast Conference will play for the championship on Tuesday. Top seed Gonzaga and second seed San Diego both left Vegas a day early without what they came for.
Instead, it will be No. 5 BYU (22-9) facing No. 6 San Francisco (19-12) for the championship at 1 p.m. at the Orleans Arena.
The Cougars closed hard and fast and knocked off Gonzaga 61-55 in the first semifinal while the Dons used ferocious defensive intensity to stimulate their transition game as they outscored the Toreros 36-15 in the second half on the way to a 65-57 triumph.
"They came at us hard,'' San Diego guard Malina Hood said. "We fell apart, basically. We didn't handle the pressure well.''
"They did a really good job of coming at us in the second half,'' San Diego forward Katelyn McDaniel said. "I don't think we matched their intensity.''
It will be USF's first appearance in a WCC championship game since 1997, when husband and wife Bill Nepfel and Mary Hile-Nepfel shared coaching duties on the Hilltop.
Vanquished Gonzaga had much the same to say after its loss to BYU, marked by a 13-5 run to close out the game by the Cougars.
"We may have lost some composure in our offense,'' Zags forward Sunny Greinacher said.
"We didn't get the stops we needed down the line,'' Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. "BYU executed very well. They changed their defense from zone to man and that affected us.''
The common ground in both games was simple desire and intensity shown by the winners. The Dons and Cougars wanted it more than their opponents and they were rewarded with spots in the championship game -- well-earned, both.
Losing coach Cindy Fisher of San Diego was asked her opinion on Tuesday's title game. BYU swept the season series vs. San Francisco but had to work hard to do it, winning by three at home, 65-62, and by five on the road, 68-63. The Dons have to hope that the standard logic of it being difficult to beat a team three times in a season holds true.
"It's going to be a great game,'' Fisher said. "Both teams have a lot of momentum, having come from behind. BYU has the ability to put up a lot of points. It should be a really good matchup. It can go either way. It's championship basketball. It's up for grabs, I think.''
The Dons were on the verge of getting blown out by San Diego in the first half, trailing 42-29 and giving no evidence that a second half of greatness was in the offing.
"We started taking ownership after the first half,'' USF guard Zhane Dikes said. "At halftime we really came together. We told each other we'd have to fight. After the first five minutes (of the second half) when we started to come back and get steals, I could just feel it. I knew we were going to turn this thing around.''
As in a 30-8 run by the Dons to start the second half, turning a 42-29 deficit into a 59-50 lead on a 3-point shot by Dikes, playing with joy and abandon in her hometown.
"That gave us a lot of energy after that made 3,'' Dikes said. "We kept firing.''
USF's defensive intensity as it switched from a zone defense to man was at least partially responsible for a dreadful second half of shooting by the Toreros. USD started off 1-for-16 and finished 5-for-21 while the Dons were scoring better than two points for every one by the Toreros. It added up to a satisfying and emotional win for USF.
"It was an ugly first half. We dug a hole,'' USF coach Jennifer Azzi said. "I was really impressed with how our team fought like crazy in the second half. It's a credit to how hard they wanted it.''
Said guard Taj Winston, who had a game-high 18 points, "The coaches can give us a game plan but the players are the ones who actually have to get it done.''
Winston was supported by Dikes' 16 points and a double-double by post player Taylor Proctor, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds as well as four assists and two steals. The Dons' defensive resolve accounted for 18 points off turnovers. Conversely, San Diego scored just three points off six USF turnovers.
"We played an amazing first half and an extremely disappointing second half,'' Fisher said. "We missed some easy baskets and didn't get back in transition. The closer it got, the tighter we got.''
It was much the same late in the first semi between BYU and Gonzaga as the Zags tightened up and lost any chance to pull it out. After its last lead at 50-48 with 6:15 to go, the Zags were outscored 13-5. Two plays revealed their futility in this span: Throwing the ball away after having stolen it seconds before on an inbounds play by USF and losing the ball out of bounds when Emma Stach's jumper missed the hoop entirely and bounced off the underside of the backboard.
"The ball bounced our way tonight,'' BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "To be able to play defense like that in the second half is a coach's dream.''
On that, guard Makenzi Morrison, high for the game with 18 points, said, "It was key to our team to stick to our defensive principles. For us to be as sharp as they were and get over the hump was big for us. We switched it up from man to zone.''
At 24-7, the question is, has Gonzaga done enough to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament a week hence?
"We like to put things in our own hands,'' coach Lisa Fortier said. "I don't know what the committee is going to think of our resume. I'm not 100 percent confident we have done enough this year.''
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.