Zag women earn NCAA tourney berth

LAS VEGAS — Courtney Vandersloot scored 19 points, Heather Bowman added 14 and No. 18 Gonzaga rolled to its 17th straight victory, 76-48 over Pepperdine on Monday in the WCC tournament final.

Kayla Standish had 10 points and 14 rebounds for the Zags (27-4), who dominated the conference in unprecedented fashion with a 14-0 regular-season run followed by tournament routs of Santa Clara and Pepperdine. They’re the first team in WCC history to follow up a perfect regular season with a tournament title — and it was all just a warmup to their high expectations for the NCAAs.

“I think this is the most dominant team that’s ever played in this conference, and I’m not going out on a limb there,” said coach Kelly Graves, who coached two previous Gonzaga teams to perfect regular seasons, only to lose in the tournament.

Graves knew his Zags were loaded when they returned four starters and 12 letterwinners from last season’s second-round NCAA tournament team. Their mid-tier league was no match for them: The Zags won their regular-season West Coast games by an average of 30.6 points, with none closer than 12 points.

Led by two-time WCC player of the year Vandersloot and conference career scoring leader Bowman, Gonzaga hasn’t lost since back-to-back defeats against nationally ranked Baylor and Texas A&M in a mid-December holiday tournament in Las Vegas.

When asked to rank these Zags among her previous teams, Bowman puts this group at the top.

“This team has been more consistent,” said Bowman, a four-time all-tournament team selection. “We’re a little deeper this year. We’ve been really good about pulling things out. I think we’re going to be in a position to go further.”

Vandersloot was named the tournament MVP despite scoring just 10 points in Gonzaga’s 40-point victory over Santa Clara in Sunday’s semifinals. She scored 14 in the first half against Pepperdine, keeping the Zags ahead while her teammates struggled, and Bowman eventually came through with eight points in the second half.

“She’s just a great player to play with as a point guard,” Vandersloot said of Bowman. “It’s great to have someone I can just throw it to, and she’s going to score at will.”

Graves compares the duo to Gonzaga alum John Stockton and Karl Malone, his partner during their Hall of Fame careers with the Utah Jazz.

“They’ve got a connection that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Graves said.

Lauren Bell scored 16 points for the Waves (20-11), whose otherwise successful season included three one-sided losses to Gonzaga, the nation’s fifth highest-scoring team. Pepperdine got off to a 3 for 20 shooting start, and except for a minor rally late in the first half, they never threatened the Zags, who have won six straight regular-season conference titles.

“I think we played well in the first half,” Pepperdine coach Julie Rousseau said. “The first 25 minutes, we played toe-to-toe. They’re very good, with lots of seniors, and they’re running people in and out. We’re a young team. That’s the difference. I hope they represent the WCC well.”

Rousseau said she anticipates a WNIT berth for the Waves.

Gonzaga led just 34-26 at halftime after shooting 11 for 32, but Vandersloot hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half. The Zags kept shooting 3s long after the game was decided, repeatedly going ahead by 30 points while hitting 63 percent of their second-half shots.

Leading scorer Miranda Ayim managed just 10 points for Pepperdine, while No. 2 scorer Jazmine Jackson had 10 rebounds but six points on 1-for-9 shooting. Pepperdine went 15 for 59 (25.4 percent) from the field under Gonzaga’s relentless defensive pressure, although the Waves also missed a slew of open shots.

Pepperdine finished third in the regular-season conference standings, but upset second-seeded Saint Mary’s to reach the tournament final. The Waves lost to Gonzaga 107-64 in January and 87-45 last month.

“We stopped fighting in the second half, but we’ll learn from this game,” Bell said.

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