2015 WCC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT CENTRAL
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED - WCC WOMEN'S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
LAS VEGAS - Upon winning the West Coast Conference women's basketball championship, the first words out of BYU coach Jeff Judkins' mouth were these:
His San Francisco counterpart, Jennifer Azzi, might have said the same thing, because Tuesday afternoon's title game at the Orleans Arena featured fifth seed BYU vs. sixth seed USF. The top four seeds, Gonzaga, San Diego, Pacific and Saint Mary's, all came up lacking in some fundamental aspect of the game, whether it be determination, strategy, an unshakeable will or talent rising up at just the right time.
"We still have basketball ahead of us,'' Azzi said, though unsure of whether her team's post-season will be spent in the WNIT or NCAA. "I have a range of emotions. I'm excited about the future, excited about the progress we made this season. We're excited about being in the post-season in a very, very long time.''
In winning its second WCC title, BYU in 2015 became the lowest-seeded team ever to cut down the net when it was all over. That net was worn with pride by BYU guard Lexi Eaton, voted the Most Outstanding Player in leading the Cougars to the title in a journey that included a 65-64 win over Saint Mary's when she hit the winning shot at the buzzer, a defeat of No. 1 Gonzaga 61-55 and finally the victory over the Dons. Eaton averaged 22.3 points per game in the tournament.
Joining her on the All-Tournament team were her teammates Morgan Bailey and Makenzi Morrison along with USF's Taj Winston and Gonzaga's Sunny Greinacher.
"It's big-time to be going to the NCAA Tournament,'' Eaton said. "That's what I love the most. We had a lot to go through three weeks ago. We were battle-tested. You have to be persistent and come ready to play when it counts. I like to be that player who comes through in big games.''
What makes BYU's championship run all the more remarkable is the fact it closed out the regular season by losing four of its last five games, to Saint Mary's, Pacific, San Diego and Gonzaga. Coming into the WCC Tournament, there was no indication the Cougars had any life left in them. Then they knocked off the Gaels and the Zags to reach the title game.
"I'm really proud of my team,'' Judkins said. "That was a long four weeks. It shows a lot of character of my team and coaches. This team could have quit.''
Added Bailey, who had 20 points and eight rebounds, "It's amazing. Who would have thought with the (couple of) weeks we had before, losing four of five games? We have a lot of heart. It showed this week in Vegas.''
This was an odd game in that BYU did all the necessary damage in a span of 6:15 in the first half to create a cushion it used the rest of the way to keep USF at bay.
With 10:45 left in the first half, a pair of free throws by Page Spietz gave the Dons a 20-17 advantage. By the 4:30 mark, they were in a 33-20 hole as the result of a 16-0 run by the Cougars. It happened quickly: a driving layup by Eaton, a 3-point shot by point guard Kylie Maeda, an inside bucket by Bailey and 3-pointers by Eaton and Maeda.
"What we really tried to emphasize is take what the defense gives you,'' Judkins said. "We did a good job getting it inside to Morgan and she kicked it out and Makenzi did a good job shooting. We have outstanding shooters and people who can get to the basket.''
That was the game, essentially. Overall, BYU made 26 of 51 shots, including 11 of 22 from beyond the 3-point line. Conversely, USF hit 22 of its 64 shots and made only 5 of 20 treys. Do the math there and BYU scored 18 more points than USF from beyond the arc.
"We were taking a lot of quick shots,'' said Winston, who did all she could to rally the Dons with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. "We weren't working the ball, attacking the 2-3 (zone). It does suck that we did dig that hole. We did keep fighting. That's all we could do.''
Azzi said of her All-Tournament player, "Taj has been outstanding in the last half of the season with her heart and will. I'm beyond excited for her future. She's a fighter. She's someone you want in your foxhole.''
BYU led by 12 at halftime, 39-27, and pushed its margin to 15 in the second half before USF closed to 10 at 48-38. That was as close as the Dons could get, as BYU used a 2-3 zone defense to thwart penetration and challenge Azzi's team to shoot from outside.
"We wanted to mix up our defense to keep the other team guessing,'' Eaton said. "They like to pressure and make us uncomfortable. We wanted to do the same to them.''
The teams now have a few days to decompress before finding out their post-season destinations. BYU (23-9) will be in the NCAA field while it seems likely that USF (19-13) will have to be happy with a WNIT bid.
Either way, Tuesday's title game was a triumph of teams that made the most of their opportunities in Las Vegas.
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.