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BYU women’s basketball: Cougars reach WCC title game in 1st season

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LAS VEGAS — A freshman helped the BYU women's basketball team win its first conference tournament game in five years.

Springville High product Lexi Eaton poured in a game-high 26 points as the No. 2 seed Cougars pounded No. 3 San Diego, 64-46, Saturday afternoon at the Orleans Arena in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals.

It marks the first time BYU has won a conference tournament contest since 2007.

With the win, the Cougars advance to the championship game against top-seeded Gonzaga on Monday (1 p.m. MST, ESPNU). Earlier in the day, the 'Zags reached the title tilt with an 83-78 victory over Saint Mary's.

Eaton, the WCC co-newcomer of the year and WCC all-freshman team selection, was equally as good in both halves. She scored 13 in the first and 13 more in the second, knocking down a combined 10-of-19 shots from the floor, including 3-of-5 from 3-point territory.

"I was just trying to attack. I needed to penetrate and it was there," Eaton said. "I was trying to be fearless in that and make plays. I wanted to be aggressive."

Eaton also had six rebounds, two assists, one blocked shot and two steals.

"She's got a lot of confidence that not a lot of freshmen have," said Cougar forward Kristen Riley. "We needed someone to take over and get the jitters out of us. She did great."

Coach Jeff Judkins, who starred at Utah in college and enjoyed a career in the National Basketball Association, was impressed with Eaton's aggressiveness and scoring ability.

"If I could drive like that, I'd still be in the League right now," Judkins said. "Tonight was her night. Lexi was the one that could get to the basket and finish. That's what she can do for us and it makes this team hard to defend."

Speaking of defense, BYU limited the Toreros to just 25 percent shooting from the floor. The Cougars' 6-foot-7 center, Jennifer Hamson, provided a strong presence inside, pulling down nine rebounds and scoring 10 points.

At halftime, Hamson had zero points and one rebound.

"I thought Jen came in the second half and played way more aggressive," Judkins said.

"When she's strong in there, nobody can stop her," Riley said of Hamson.

BYU had a tough time pulling away from San Diego early, but the Cougars finished the first half with a 12-4 run that gave them a 29-21 advantage at intermission.

It didn't take long for BYU to build on that lead as a layup by Hamson put the Cougars ahead, 41-27. From there, BYU cruised, eventually going up by 20, 62-42, with one minute remaining.

Riley, the WCC player of the year, pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with seven points and four blocked shots.

"She works hard every single day. That's why she's a great player," Judkins said. "That's why she's the best all-around player in the league, hands down. She's a great defender, great passer, great rebounder. She does it all."

For Riley, Saturday's win was a measure of redemption after the Cougars fell on a last-second shot against Utah in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals last season.

"We've been waiting for this day for a whole year," Riley said. "Last year was the worst loss I've ever had. Losing to Utah on a last-second shot was just awful. Today really made me feel better."

Now, the Cougars are playing for the WCC Tournament championship in their first season in the league.

BYU and Gonzaga split their series during the regular season.

"It's going to come down to who wants it the most and who can defend the best," Judkins said. "I'm sure it will be a great chess match. Both teams are very similar."

Email: jeffc@desnews.com