Women’s basketball: BYU to face Gonzaga for WCC title
Basketball • Cougars and Gonzaga expect intense battle for title.
Published: March 5, 2012 11:32PM
Updated: March 4, 2012 11:54PM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU's Kristen Riley celebrates with Dani Peterson, after Peterson's shot gave BYU a bit lead, late in the game, in basketball action, BYU vs. Utah, at the Marriott Center in Provo, Saturday, December 10, 2011.

Las Vegas • When both teams are talking about throwing the first punch, you know it is going to be an intense, physical, winner-take-all basketball game.

And for the West Coast Conference tournament women’s title, no less.

That’s what the BYU Cougars and Gonzaga Bulldogs will play for Monday at Orleans Arena in a rubber-match game after splitting their regular-season series — that and the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Tipoff is at 1 p.m. MST, and the game will be televised by ESPNU.

BYU (25-6) crushed shell-shocked Gonzaga 70-40 in Provo on Feb. 9, then the Zags (26-4) returned the favor in Spokane on Feb. 25 with a 77-60 victory.

“Last time we played them, we weren’t ready to play, and we are ready for them now,” said BYU freshman Lexi Eaton, who scored a career-high 26 points in the Cougars’ 64-46 semifinal win over San Diego. “We want to throw the first punch this time and put them back on their heels.”

Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves called BYU’s big win in Provo “an aberration,” and Bulldogs junior Taelor Karr declared: “We want to throw the first punch, do what we can do to slow them down. We want to play physical.”

During Sunday’s news conference, BYU senior point guard Haley Steed said the game is “going to be a dogfight” several times, but aside from the boxing references, there seems to be a general feeling of respect from both sides.

Steed called BYU the new kid on the block and brought up Gonzaga’s long run of WCC tournament titles — three straight and four of the past five — but added, “We don’t really care who’s won it in the past or what’s gone on before.”

Asked how the Cougars could rip the Zags by 30 at home and then lose badly in Spokane, BYU coach Jeff Judkins said he didn’t have his team ready last time.

“There is a big word called effort,” he said. “And that’s what is going to be brought up tonight [in a team meeting].”

So the scene is set in front of what will be a huge, pro-Gonzaga crowd. BYU fans were here in force for the men’s games Friday and Saturday but historically don’t support the women’s team nearly as much, and many left town after the men lost Saturday night.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s men are also in the championship game, ensuring strong support for both Spokane teams on Monday.

“It’s the same atmosphere as at home,” Gonzaga’s Karr said.

“We saw the Gonzaga crowd for the women’s game and men’s game,” Steed said. “We are expecting it to be a more dominant Gonzaga crowd.”

Conventional wisdom is that the Zags are already in the NCAA Tournament — ESPN has them as a No. 12 seed — based on their Top 25 national ranking and No. 22 spot in the latest RPI figures. The Cougars, however, probably need to win to get the automatic bid because they inexplicably stumbled late in the season against Pepperdine and San Francisco. BYU’s RPI is in the mid-40s.

BYU coach Jeff Judkins said both teams should go dancing but realizes history might not be on his side: Traditionally, the WCC has been a one-bid league for women’s basketball. It hasn’t received two bids since 2002 (Pepperdine and Santa Clara).

“I really believe this, even if I was on the other side of the fence. We deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, both teams. We’ve won 25 games each, or more, we’ve beaten Pac-12 schools, we’ve beaten Big East schools, we’ve beaten Big 12 schools. We deserve to go,” Judkins said. “Our league’s RPI is [8]. If you are a 7 or 8 RPI league, you should get two teams in. Just like I think the [WCC] men should have at least three teams in.”

drew@sltrib.comTwitter: @drewjay

WCC women’s basketball final

P Gonzaga vs. BYU

At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

Tipoff • 1 p.m. MST

TV • ESPNU

Radio • byuradio.org and Sirius XM 143

Records • BYU 25-6, Gonzaga 26-4

Series history • Tied, 4-4

Last meeting • Gonzaga 77, BYU 60 (Feb. 25, 2012)

About the Cougars • They start three seniors — Dani Peterson, Kristen Riley and Haley Steed — a sophomore (Kim Parker) and a freshman (Lexi Eaton). ... Riley, the WCC Player of the Year, averages 11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds a game. ... Eaton, the league’s Co-Newcomer of the Year, leads them in scoring with a 10.7 average. ... Steed has a year of eligibility remaining if she wants to take it and has said she will decide when the season is over.

About the Bulldogs • Kayla Stanish, a 6-2 senior, scored 31 points in their 83-78 win over St. Mary’s on Saturday. Senior guard Katelan Redmon added 20 points and sophomore guard Haiden Palmer added 14. ... Coach Kelly Graves is a St. George native who graduated from Dixie High and Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho).