LAS VEGAS — Monday’s West Coast Conference women’s tournament semifinal game at Orleans Arena between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 5 BYU felt like a home game for the Zags.
“Some things broke down, defensively. We had some issues on offense, obviously. But some of my girls came ready to play. They stuck together. That’s a positive. They kept fighting until the very end.” — BYU coach Amber Whiting
As usual, Gonzaga fans came out in force to support its team — which is ranked No. 16 in the country — easily outnumbering Cougar fans.
Upstart BYU kept things close in the first half before the Zags took control of the game in the second half, outscoring the Cougars 27-10 in the decisive third quarter.
In the end, Gonzaga eliminated BYU 79-64 and advanced to Tuesday’s WCC tournament championship game.
For the Cougars, it was their final WCC tournament appearance.
“Tonight was not our best output, for sure,” said BYU coach Amber Whiting. “Some things broke down, defensively. We had some issues on offense, obviously. But some of my girls came ready to play. They stuck together. That’s a positive. They kept fighting until the very end.”
The Zags were simply too much for the Cougars on semifinal Monday, and they defeated BYU for the third time this season.
“I love the way we competed in the second half,” said Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier. “We did a great job on the glass the entire game … Our team was battling, knowing that’s a big strength for BYU.”
The Zags will shoot for their third consecutive WCC tournament title Tuesday.
Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim recorded a double-double, scoring a game-high 21 points and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds. She also collected five assists, three steals and two blocks.
“She’s energetic. She doesn’t have a lot of holes in her game. She can score with the best of them. She can score around the basket, she can score from the perimeter, from the mid-range,” Fortier said about Ejim. “She’s a really good defender and she’s about as strong of a player that there’s ever been. Watching her and (Lauren) Gustin battle each other is one of my favorite things to do.
“Our team has a lot of faith in her,” Fortier added. “When something breaks down or if we don’t know what’s going on, we just throw the ball to her and she’s either going to make a great pass out to somebody or she’s going to make a basket herself or draw a foul. It’s never a bad option.”
Ejim outdueled BYU star Lauren Gustin, the nation’s leading rebounder. Gustin scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and finished with a season-low nine rebounds.
Coming off her WCC record 27 rebounds in Saturday’s win over San Francisco, Gustin finished with single-digit boards for the first time this season.
Ejim expressed her respect for Gustin.
“It’s always fun. I really like playing against players like Lauren Gustin. I feel like it’s a real test because she’s such a great player. It’s a real challenge. Competing with her is energizing,” she said. “I want to go after her, I want to stop her, I want to get rebounds that she usually gets. I feel like that competitiveness puts energy into my defensive game. Credit to her. She’s such a good player. She rebounds the ball like no other.”
Of course, Ejim relished the fact that she held Gustin well under her average of 16.9 rebounds per game.
“It is a team effort but it gets me excited that I’m able to demonstrate that part of my defense and my part of my game, guarding her that well,” Ejim said.
Gustin praised Ejim, too.
“She’s a great player,” Gustin said. “She’s really strong and she works hard.”
Brynna Maxwell scored 18 points for the Zags, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Kaylynne Truong added 13 points and seven assists.
BYU was led by Nani Falatea, who scored 17 points on 4-of-18 shooting. Emma Calvert scored 13 points and tallied five rebounds.
For the game, Gonzaga outshot BYU 51% to 35.7%.
The complexion of the contest shifted dramatically in the third quarter. The Zags led 31-25 at intermission before coming out strong to start the second half.
“That was a huge quarter. We really wanted to compete coming out of halftime,” Fortier said. “That was the last thing I told the team — ‘We have to compete harder.’ … The start of that second half, we executed everything. It was a pivotal, changing-point of the game.”
In the third period, Gonzaga hit 9 of 13 shots while BYU was 3 of 10 from the field. The Zags led by as many as 23 points at the end of the third quarter.
“Some of our defensive principles broke down. They ran some things that we’ve seen before,” Whiting said. “You pick and choose your poison. We picked the wrong one, obviously. There were a lot of things that broke down.”
For the game, the Cougars (16-16) ended up with 23 turnovers. The Zags (28-3) scored 25 points off those turnovers.
BYU enjoyed a nice run in its last ride in Las Vegas, beating Pepperdine in the second round and San Francisco in the quarterfinals.
Whiting loved the fight her team showed over the past week.
“I was happy with how they performed Friday and Saturday. (Gonzaga’s) last (regular season) game was against us. That was eight days ago,” Whiting said. “That seems like forever ago. It’s crazy that we’ve played all these games since then. I am proud of how they came out, proud of how they finished and how they fought. I couldn’t ask for anything more from them.”