LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gonzaga has been the dominant team in the West Coast Conference for years and little has changed since BYU joined the league.
It’s gotten a little tougher since the Cougars became part of the conference, but the Bulldogs are still the top school, as they proved again on Tuesday.
Keani Albanez scored 20 points and No. 18 Gonzaga dominated BYU defensively to win the WCC Championship for the sixth time in seven years, beating the Cougars 71-57.
“Today, we played as hard as we possibly could play and for stretches we played as well as we could possibly play,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
Especially on defense.
After some early struggles against WCC Player of the Year Jennifer Hamson, Gonzaga (29-4) turned the title game into a rout, holding the Cougars to 30 percent shooting while forcing 21 turnovers.
Hamson scored eight quick points, but the Bulldogs limited her chances during a key stretch to build a 16-point halftime lead. She finished with 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting.
Gonzaga also made life difficult for Lexi Eaton. BYU’s second-leading scorer shot several air balls and scored 11 of her 15 points at the free-throw line while going 2 of 18 from the field.
“Definitely going into this game, we wanted it,” Albanez said. “You could see it in everyone’s eyes, you could see it in our locker room, during warm-ups, pumped-up songs. It means a lot to us.”
BYU (26-6) tried to fight its way back several times after a dismal first half, but never made it all the way back because of poor shooting and turnovers that led to 19 points for Gonzaga.
Kim Beeston added 12 points and five assists for the Cougars.
Gonzaga came into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed after going 16-2 in the WCC, pretty much ensuring an NCAA tournament berth no matter what happened in the title game.
The Cougars, on the other hand, are teetering on the NCAA bubble. They were hoping to earn the automatic berth instead of waiting out Selection Sunday to see if they’re in the bracket.
To have a chance, BYU needed a big game from Hamson.
She fought foul trouble in the teams’ first meeting in January, which Gonzaga won in a rout, but scored 20 points in a 10-point win over the Zags on Feb. 15.
Hamson had no trouble against Gonzaga early on in the third meeting.
Getting good position deep in the post, the 6-foot-7 senior scored eight points in the opening 4 minutes, all around the rim. She also blocked shots on consecutive possessions, contributing to what was a mostly defensive start.
While Hamson was scoring around the basket, her teammates missed their first nine shots and Gonzaga opened 3 of 12.
The Bulldogs took over by turning up the defensive pressure even more.
Forcing turnovers with their press and pushing Hamson farther away from the basket, Gonzaga went on a 14-0 run to go up 22-10.
BYU continued to struggle against Gonzaga’s defense, going 8 1/2 minutes without a field goal while making 5 of 24 shots in the first half. Hamson missed her final five shots and didn’t score after that initial outburst, and the Cougars had 14 turnovers that led to 13 points for Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs led 30-14 after Albanez hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
“We had to change the style of the game; It was not going well early,” Graves said. “And we did.”
Little changed in the second half.
BYU missed its first seven shots and had trouble even getting the ball into Hamson, who didn’t take a shot until scoring 7 1/2 minutes in as Gonzaga stretched the lead to 20.
Hamson then started hitting shots to get BYU to 50-40, but Gonzaga stretched the lead after that and didn’t let the Cougars any closer.
“We kind of got on our heels and didn’t really attack like we should,” Judkins said. “What I mean by attack is get the ball into Jen, get in better spots for her to score, and you’ve got to give them credit for that.”
The Bulldogs now await the NCAA Tournament Selection, which is set for Monday, March 17. Gonzaga is making its sixth-straight NCAA Tournament and seventh in eight years.