Meet Gonzaga’s biggest WCC Tournament challengers

PALO ALTO, CA - MARCH 25: Sara Hamson #22 of the BYU Cougars is guarded by Shannon Coffee #2 of the Stanford Cardinal during the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at Maples Pavilion on March 25, 2019 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Getty Images)
PALO ALTO, CA - MARCH 25: Sara Hamson #22 of the BYU Cougars is guarded by Shannon Coffee #2 of the Stanford Cardinal during the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at Maples Pavilion on March 25, 2019 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Getty Images) /

It’s the Zags’ to lose (again), but there’s no easy path to the title

As usual, Gonzaga enters the West Coast Conference Tournament as the favorite. And, as usual, there’s no guarantee that the favorite will win.

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The Bulldogs (28-2, 17-1) have entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed in seven of the last eight seasons, but have only won the championship four times in that span. Their pedigree speaks for itself — as in, with the exception of the 2015-16 season, they’ve gotten into the NCAA Tournament regardless of their performance in the WCC Tournament. Entering the postseason on a renewed win streak, though, courtesy of a conference title, is always the hope.

Gonzaga’s season has been characterized by its usual in-conference dominance (17-1 ties their best record) as well as a program-best No. 11 ranking in the AP Poll (they’re now No. 12). But it was also characterized by a big loss, as Katie Campbell went down with a season-ending injury in early February. It brought back painful memories of the team’s outing last WCC Tournament, where the injury-depleted team needed a buzzer-beater to down Saint Mary’s in the semifinal before falling hard to BYU in the final.

But Gonzaga has hung in there since, dropping a road contest to Saint Mary’s (one that will certainly go down as a bad loss come Selection Monday, though it hasn’t seemed to hurt them so far) but running the table on the conference otherwise. In her first season as a starter, Jill Townsend was named WCC Player of the Year, while four other Zags — including Campbell as well as her replacement in the starting five, Kayleigh Truong — earned All-WCC honors. Plus, head coach Lisa Fortier is one of 10 Naismith Coach of the Year semifinalists.

This dominance — and a look at the standings — suggests that the only hope of sending two WCC teams to the NCAA Tournament is by a non-Gonzaga team winning the title. But with the emergence of so many new contenders, it’s an outcome that can’t be ruled out.

Toreros win hard-earned No. 2 seed

San Diego (19-10, 13-5) has clearly come a long way from being picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll. Led by WCC Coach of the Year Cindy Fisher and winners of the second-place tiebreaker with BYU thanks to their sweep of No. 4 Portland, the Toreros are looking for their first WCC title since 2008, which they won on their home floor in the last season before the tournament moved to Las Vegas.

The Toreros have gotten to the title game more recently, though, upsetting their way there as the No. 6 seed in 2018. And with the WCC’s new tournament format giving the top two seeds byes to the semifinals since last season, the Toreros — and their four All-WCC picks — find themselves just one game away from a return trip.

As the case tends to be among the WCC’s best, San Diego has found success through its defense. It leads the conference in steals, turnover margin and defensive rebounding percentage, all areas that helped it slide in just behind Gonzaga and BYU in scoring defense.

BYU hasn’t gone away yet

Despite earning the No. 3 seed, the Cougars (18-10, 13-5) haven’t looked like their usually dominant selves this season. In-season, this was reflected by their two losses to Gonzaga, who they swept last season; but the loss of 2019 Newcomer of the Year Shaylee Gonzales to an ACL injury took some momentum out of BYU’s season before it began.

The Cougars got through their conference slate with their defense, which was second-best in the WCC in points allowed alongside the lowest defensive field goal percentage. But also carrying the conference’s worst offense — where Gonzales’ absence was most notable — meant that without a perfect defensive outing every time, suffering more losses than last season was to be expected.

Who BYU does still have, though, is Sara Hamson, the NCAA’s blocks leader and now two-time WCC Defensive Player of the Year. While the 6’7″ center’s presence is, naturally, mostly felt on the defensive end — she recorded seven or more blocks in seven WCC games — she’s also been good for some much-needed clutch points if her guards can find her.

Pilots rising

The addition of some powerful newcomers to the fourth-seeded Portland lineup has made the transition to a new head coach appear better than seamless for the Pilots (18-11, 11-7). Nowhere has that been clearer than on offense, where they boast the conference’s highest points per game and top scorer in WCC Newcomer of the Year Alex Fowler.

Portland has won the WCC Tournament just once, in 1994. And while this season’s success still feels largely transitional, a harbinger of even better things to come, there’s no mistaking that this Pilots team has the tools to pull off a major upset. Given another shot at Gonzaga in the semifinal, a team Portland made very uncomfortable in both meetings this season, it could be closer to its first title game appearance in 23 years than the odds suggest.

The WCC Tournament begins Thursday, March 5. Most games will be broadcast on WCC Network and a variety of local TV options, with the championship taking place Tuesday, March 10 at 1 p.m. PT on ESPNU.

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