March 7, 2023 

Top dogs move forward to meet for WCC championship

Gonzaga and Portland showed why they were the favorites all season

LAS VEGAS — After their upsets reigned on quarterfinal Saturday, the top two seeds at the WCC Conference Tournament played for the first time and showed why they deserved their bye to the semifinals. Even though there weren’t any upsets, both games had exciting moments. Let’s look back at how Gonzaga and Portland set themselves up to face off for a third time in the championship game.

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WCC Game of the Day

Portland vs Pacific. A game that was decided by three points where Pacific had a chance to force overtime on the last possession. The majority of the fourth quarter was played within one possession for either team.

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WCC Moment Of The Day

Yvonne Ejim showed why she is a Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year candidate with this emphatic block.

WCC Quote Of The Day

“I feel like it’s always fun,” Yvonne Ejim on playing against Lauren Gustin. “I really liked playing against players like Lauren Gastin. I feel like it’s a real test because she’s such a great player. It’s a real challenge. Maybe some people would want to just like coast through stuff, but really being able to compete with her it really is energizing to me. That kind of builds some pride into my defense, to wanna go after her, want to stop her want to get the rebounds she usually gets. I feel like that competitiveness really puts energy into my defense against her but credit to her, she’s such a good player. She rebounds the ball like no other, she’s so good for that. But I feel it’s so nice to be able to have that person in this season that I can play against.”

March 6, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Brynna Maxwell (22) shoots the basketball against the BYU Cougars during the first half of the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada

Game 1: #1 Gonzaga defeats #5 BYU, 79-64

Summary: Using a 27-10 third quarter, Gonzaga was able to run away from BYU in the second half and defeat the Cougars. The Zags held the Cougs to 36% shooting while shooting 50% themselves. Gonzaga had three players in double figures led by Yvonne Ejim’s 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Gonzaga Thoughts: The Bulldogs had a fine first half, then played some of their best basketball of the season in the third quarter. They started the quarter on a 9-0 run to extend their six-point halftime lead to 15 early in the third quarter. The offense in the first half for the Zags wasn’t very crisp, but those first few minutes of the second half saw the strong Gonzaga offense they are known for. They were running their plays with conviction and executing at a very high level.

The star of the day for the Zags was Yvonne Ejim. She was phenomenal on offense, dominating in the paint, grabbing offensive rebounds, and imposing her will on the Cougar defense. But her individual defense outshined her offense. She held Lauren Gustin to just nine points and nine rebounds. This was Gustin’s first single digit rebounding game of the season. She came as the leader in the WCC in rebounding and one of the top rebounders in the country. Ejim made her life very difficult and took pride in shutting down Gustin.

The Zags also got great performances from Kaylynne Truong and Brynna Maxwell. Truong, the WCC player of the year, scored 13 points. 11 of her points came in first half with Truong picking up the Zags when the offense wasn’t fully clicking in the first half. Maxwell struggled to start the game but found her shot in the second half, scoring all 18 of her points and knocking down all four of her three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes. Maxwell is one of the best shooters in the country and it showed Monday. Gonzaga is finally healthy, and having the depth back will only make the Zags more dangerous.

“I mean, that was a huge quarter, 27 to 10,” said Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier. “We really wanted to compete. I mean out of the halftime that was the last thing I told the team was that we have to compete harder and we were in a good place. We’ve done well, but we need to get it execute better because there were a couple of our sets that were calling and we were running the wrong thing or running it the wrong way. We weren’t going to the option that we wanted. That start the second half, I don’t know if it was a 10-0 or 12-0 run whatever it was. We executed every play how it was supposed to be executed. And if we would have missed one of those shots then it would be okay because we executed but we didn’t. The moral of the story is if you execute well, you’re gonna probably knock down the shots. We’ve gotten enough good players and that’s going to be in our in our benefit, but I loved how we started that half it was, of course a pivotal changing point in the game.”

BYU Thoughts: The Cougars started off slow, falling down 10-2, but responded well, outscoring the Zags 9-4 the rest of the first. They took a brief lead in the second quarter and played in close the rest of the half. Then the second half started, and the Cougars fell apart. Their defense which had been their strength so far in the tournament let them down. In the third quarter, they struggled coming out of the gates on both sides of the ball and it ended up being their downfall. They fought back in the fourth, but the hole was too big to climb out of at that point.

Lauren Gustin really struggled for the Cougars, scoring just nine points and grabbing nine rebounds. She had a tough tournament offensively but had been able to grab rebounds and Gonzaga took her completely out of the game. The Cougars also couldn’t find answer on offense through the first three quarters. They never shot better than 40% in the first three quarters and never scored more than 14 in the first three quarters. They found some offense in the fourth, but the deficit was too great. Nani Falatea had a nice game scoring 18 points, but she shot four of 18 from the field. She scored most of her points at the free throw line where she shot a perfect eight for eight. The Cougars made a nice run in the tournament, but their time in the WCC is officially over — they will move to the Big 12 next season.

“It’s a good conference,” said head coach Amber Whiting. “There’s a lot of really good players and coaches. Definitely looking forward to the future and what we built this year and adding to it next year, but I think we’ve got a pretty good base of what we’re going to have going forward. These girls are, like Ari said when she came in, her body’s broken, she gave everything she had and so those types of players are the players that I want to coach day in and day out and that are fun to get in the gym with. Right now, this moment, it can’t define us and it won’t define us. And we just got to pick ourselves back up and go again tomorrow.”

March 6, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Portland Pilots guard McKelle Meek (1) shoots the basketball against Pacific Tigers guard Diamond Richardson (5) during the first half of the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada

Game #2: #2 Portland defeats #6 Pacific, 75-72

Summary: The teams went back and forth almost the entire game. Heading into the final two minutes, Portland led by just one. With just over a minute left, Emme Shearer hit a tough runner to put Portland up three and Sam Ashby’s three pointer at the buzzer missed wide right. Alex Fowler scored 29 points to lead the Pilots.

Portland Thoughts: Portland is team that presses, plays tough defense, and forces turnovers. Their pressure showed up tonight, forcing 20 turnovers and scoring 30 points from those turnovers. They forced seven Pacific turnovers in the fourth quarter. Coming into the fourth, they trailed by three and they ended up scoring seven points off the seven turnovers they forced in the fourth, including the game winning bucket in the fourth quarter.

Alex Fowler was outstanding in the game, scoring 29 points, including 10 in the third quarter. She was able to score in multiple ways around the basket and find some space in the midrange. She also hit her only three of the game late in the fourth when the teams were going back and forth looking to get the win. As great as her offense was, she was also strong on defense. She had five steals and was big in Portland’s press defense. Emme Shearer had 11 points, including a huge runner as the shot clock wound down with just over a minute left which sealed the game for Portland. The Pilots will need more from people like Shearer and Maisie Burnham to step up if they want to beat Gonzaga in the WCC championship game.

“Alex has been phenomenal all year long,” said Michael Meek. “If you’ve had a chance to see her play, I think that statistically, I mean, she had a great game tonight, but she’s had so many games and she’s been doubled and triple teamed. I’ve never seen anybody gets so much attention that she does and like we’ve said before, I mean somebody that set the all-time division one scoring record at Portland. The amazing thing about Alex is she’s so selfless and she doesn’t want to be a scorer. She just wants to be a great teammate and encourage her teammates, and everybody loves playing with her and coaching and she just epidemy of a great teammate and great person. I think the stats speak for herself what she’s done for not only this year, but her career.”

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Pacific Thoughts: The Tigers were incredibly impressive in this WCC tournament run. The Tigers showed their depth once again with four players in double figures, led by Liz Smith’s 19. She pushed the pace and was very efficient today, shooting 5-for-8 from the field and knocking down six of seven free throws. Smith puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses, drawing 11 fouls in the game.

Cecilia Holmberg continued to impress with 14 points off the bench and knocked down two big baskets in the fourth that kept Pacific in the game. The Tigers also showed their toughness on the backboards, out rebounding the Pilots 38-25. They had 12 second-chance points on 16 offensive rebounds. The Tigers struggled to hold onto the ball against the Portland press with 20 turnovers. Many of those turnovers were live ball and came late in the fourth when Pacific was trying to extend or retake the lead from Portland. Overall, an impressive showing from the Tigers in Vegas and they have a lot to look forward to next season.

“I think some of the injuries kind of helped us to play a little bit better as a unit,” said Bradley Davis. “We had multiple games where we our bench was eight, I mean within three players on the bench, and we were fielding eight uniform players or nine uniform players. And it was different players for a couple of weeks and then another different night. We were all forced to play a few different roles. And I think as people got healthy, they accepted the fact that we’ve got 11 players 12 players 13 players that can play and I think they accepted roles they accepted just ‘Hey coming in for one another’ and just played well together and started looking for each other truthfully.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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