LAS VEGAS — Here in the desert, droughts are nothing new.
But the prolonged shooting drought the BYU women’s basketball team experienced in the West Coast Conference championship game Tuesday afternoon against 18th-ranked Gonzaga proved costly.
In the opening minutes, the Cougars scored on three of their first four possessions, and led 8-6 thanks to four straight baskets by star center Jennifer Hamson.
But over the next 20-plus minutes, BYU shot 1 of 19 from the field and had 15 turnovers. In the process, it fell behind by as many as 19.
That was too much for the Cougars to overcome, as defensive-minded Gonzaga earned a 71-57 victory at Orleans Arena.
“They came out and really pressured us,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said of the Bulldogs. “We had about seven or eight minutes where we didn’t handle it very well, and that was the difference in the game.”
With the win, the top-seeded Bulldogs claimed the WCC tournament championship and the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.
BYU, the No. 2 seed, dropped to 26-6 on the season. Gonzaga improved to 29-4.
During that 20-minute shooting slump, the Cougars were unable to get the ball inside to Hamson, the WCC Player of the Year.
“We couldn’t get the ball to her because of (Gonzaga’s) pressure,” Judkins said. “Jen had a great tournament. I wish we could have gotten her the ball more. I think we would have been a lot better off. … We kind of got on our heels and we didn’t attack like we should have.”
Still, Hamson scored a game-high 24 points, and was named to the all-tournament team. BYU’s Lexi Eaton finished with 15 and Kim Beeston chipped in 12.
However, Eaton made just 2 of 18 shots from the floor, missing her first 13 field goal attempts. Eaton finally hit her first field goal with 3:31 remaining.
“You can’t have one of your best players go 2 of 18,” Judkins said. “That doesn’t help. But you have to give (Gonzaga) credit. They really pressured her.”
Oddly, the Cougars were a perfect 21 of 21 from the free-throw line, which is a new school record. Eaton drilled all 11 of her attempts from the charity stripe.
As a team, BYU shot 29 percent from the field and had 21 turnovers.
Gonzaga was led by Keani Albanez, who scored a team-high 20 points. Sunny Greinacher, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, scored 16 points to go along with seven rebounds.
With 9:05 left in the first half, Beeston knocked down a jumper to lift the Cougars to a 10-8 lead. It turned out to be BYU’s last lead, and its last basket, over a stretch of 15 minutes. The Cougars had just one field goal in 21 minutes.
Beeston ended the drought with another jumper at the 14:14 mark of the second half.
Gonzaga concluded the first half with a 22-8 run to take a 30-14 lead at intermission, as Albanez nailed a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
In the second half, BYU showed some life, and Hamson helped cut the deficit to 10 points, 50-40, with a little less than seven minutes remaining.
But Greinacher answered with a 3-pointer and the Zags eventually extended their lead back to 19.
“I’m proud of my team. They came back in the second half and cut it down to 10,” Judkins said. “We had flashes of playing like we have the whole season. Hopefully this team will learn from this and when this opportunity comes again, we’ll do a lot better job.”
When asked, Judkins said his team deserves an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament when bids are announced next Monday.
“We’ve played a hard schedule. This conference is a good conference,” Judkins said. “When you have five teams in the top 100 RPI, you know you’ve got a lot of balance and a lot of good teams. … I think we have an excellent chance. If we do, we want to make this conference proud, and this university. I hope that happens. We don’t want to quit now.”
Besides Hamson and Greinacher, Pacific’s KiKi Moore, Jazmine Redmon and Lindsay Sherbert were all named to the all-tournament team.