Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves ran into the stands and high-fived fans as his players climbed a ladder to snip apart the net to celebrate their 10th consecutive conference championship.
The No. 22 Bulldogs captured the West Coast Conference regular-season title by answering several rallies by Saint Mary’s to win 75-65 in the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“It never gets old,” Graves said. “You get one, you get two and all you want is more.”
But before Gonzaga (25-4, 15-2) could have a new banner printed, it first had to settle a score with a scrappy Saint Mary’s (20-8, 10-7) team that beat the Bulldogs in overtime on Dec. 28 in Moraga, Calif.
Led by the 19 points from senior Haiden Palmer, the Bulldogs willed their way through a game that resembled more of a back-alley brawl than basketball game.
The first half started like the last three games for Gonzaga, in which the Bulldogs got good looks at the basket but couldn’t seem to hit their shots.
The Gaels stormed out to an early lead as Zags players missed several shots close to the basket.
Behind the early scoring of 6-foot forward Danielle Mauldin, the Gaels led 15-10 before Gonzaga made a run to take the lead on a Lindsay Sherbert 3-pointer that made the score 20-19.
A couple more 3s by Keani Albanez and Palmer and the Zags looked like they were going to run away. But the Gaels went on a run to make reel them in a bit at 29-25.
Palmer hit shots as Mauldin, who finished with 14 first-half points, hit several free throws for the halftime score of 35-29.
Blocks, turnovers and missed shots kept either team from scoring for 2 minutes into the second half until senior guard Jazmine Redmon drove the lane and hit a layup.
The Zags built leads of 11, 13, and 15 points, but Mauldin, Jackie Nared and Kate Gaze kept leading the Gaels back.
Those three players “are difficult to stop,” Graves said. “Saint Mary’s was very game. They made us earn it.”
The Gaels closed to within six points at 71-65 with less than a minute to go, but Shaniqua Nilles hit four successive free throws to seal the victory.
Gonzaga had four players score in double figures, including Palmer’s 19. Sophomore guard Keani Albanez hit four-3 pointers and scored 14 points. Nilles and Redmon both scored 10.
Mauldin led the Gaels with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Gaze had 17 points and Nared had 14.
Albanez praised the play of Palmer and Redmon, who attacked the basket to allow her to get open for her long-range shots.
“I just had to stay ready and stay alert,” Albanez said.
After the game, Graves clung to the WCC trophy and held it like he didn’t want to give it up.
“The league has never been as good as it is this year,” he said. “It’s not easy. Ten years in a row. That’s a lot of really good players and coaches that made that happen.”
Gonzaga 70, Pacific 53
STOCKTON, Calif. — There is a tradition when Gonzaga clinches a West Coast Conference regular-season or tournament championship.
It involves head coach Mark Few performing a locker-room celebration, a dance perhaps, in front of his players.
The details are sketchy, but one thing’s for sure: Few has had a lot of practice at the ritual.
The Bulldogs earned an outright regular-season title by thumping Pacific 70-53 Thursday in front of 5,454 at the Spanos Center — the largest crowd here since 2005. In Few’s 15 seasons as head coach, Gonzaga has won 13 titles, 11 solo.
Asked about the postgame celebration, Few offered a nervous laugh and said, “I always do my little deal. We don’t save it for anything. We don’t take anything for granted.”
Few praised his team for bouncing back from last week’s 0-2 conference road trip.
“It’s a special deal to be able to win one,” he said. “This is first time where it’s been 18 games. It’s longer and harder and as I’ve said all along this year, this league is better top to bottom. It’s a great testament to those guys.”
Gonzaga (24-6, 14-3) put together a complete effort, matching a 70-53 victory over Pepperdine for its most lopsided WCC road win.
Kevin Pangos had 18 points and Drew Barham made four 3-pointers and matched his career high with 17 points.
The Bulldogs, tentative in the lane in Saturday’s loss to San Diego, went hard to rim and were rewarded with field goals and 32 free-throw attempts, their most since Portland three weeks ago. Gonzaga was 1 of 14 on floaters against the Toreros.
“We knew we could do it, we just had to get the mentality,” Pangos said. “We stressed being strong on drives and not bailing out on contact.”
GU limited the Tigers to 31-percent shooting and their second-lowest point total of the season. The Bulldogs did it despite limited minutes from Sam Dower Jr. and Przemek Karnowski, both of whom were in early foul trouble. Karnowski also missed some time after spraining his right ankle in the second half.
The Bulldogs employed freshmen Luke Meikle and Ryan Edwards in the first half and used a zone defense that bothered Pacific (14-14, 5-12). The Zags finished with nine steals and forced 16 turnovers.
“We got in early foul trouble so we went to (the zone),” Barham said. “We flew around, talked and flew out on shooters and made it tough on them.”
Tied at 16 with Karnowski and Dower sitting on the bench, Gonzaga rattled off 13 unanswered points. David Stockton started the spurt by drawing a foul on penetration and hitting two free throws. Pangos’ first points of the game came via a transition layup as he was being fouled.
Pangos added two more baskets off dribble penetration. He made two free throws after a technical foul on Pacific’s Aaron Short and Gonzaga led 29-16.
GU went small, at times really small with the 6-foot-9, 203-pound Meikle at center, flanked by Kyle Dranginis, Barham, Stockton and Pangos. The Bulldogs led by as many as 15 before settling for a 40-28 halftime edge. Pangos scored all 15 of his first-half points in the final 8:29.
The Zags, stung by sluggish second-half starts last week, used a 13-3 run to open up a 53-31 lead.
“We were playing for each other and worrying less about ourselves and what was at stake,” said Stockton, who had four points, four rebounds, five assists and three steals.
“It showed, especially in the zone. People were covering for each other, making plays.”
Karnowski had nine points and nine boards. Gary Bell Jr. added nine points and six rebounds.
Barham’s 17 led the bench’s 24-point effort. Gerard Coleman had four assists and Angel Nunez added four points. T.J. Wallace led Pacific with nine points.
“It means a lot,” Barham said of the championship. “That was one of our goals coming into the year and that’s what we’ve done.”