Faraudo: UCU WCC Women's Tournament Primer

#WCChoops columnist forecasts an exciting week in Las Vegas

By Jeff Faraudo
#WCChoops Columnist | ARCHIVES

The Gonzaga women take aim at their third University Credit Union West Coast Conference Basketball Tournament title in four seasons and their ninth overall when the event gets under way Thursday afternoon at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

The Bulldogs were denied the crown a year ago by BYU, but Gonzaga returns having claimed four consecutive WCC regular-season titles and is the clear favorite.

The Zags have won eight WCC tournament titles, more than any school, all of them since 2007.

Gonzaga and No. 2 seed San Diego earned byes into Monday’s semifinals round. The championship game will be played Tuesday at 1 p.m. and aired on ESPNU.

Here is a rundown of each WCC squad headed to Vegas, in order of their tournament seeding:

1. GONZAGA (28-2, 17-1)
The skinny: The 12th-ranked and top-seeded Bulldogs have lost just once since falling 76-70 in overtime at Stanford back on Nov. 17. They won their fourth straight WCC regular-season crown, despite losing second-leading scorer Katie Campbell to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 1. It doesn’t hurt that the Zags have WCC Player of the Year Jill Townsend, a junior guard who leads the team with a 12.2 scoring average and shoots 42 percent from 3-point distance and 88 percent on free throws.
Who’s hot: Certainly not Gonzaga’s opponents. The last five were held to 50 points or fewer, averaging just 44.6 over that span. The Zags have allowed just 51.3 points per game for the season — second-best in the nation.
Key stat: Besides its defense, Gonzaga wins with scoring balance. No Zags player finished among the top-15 in the WCC in scoring, and junior forward Jenn Wirth earned first-team all-conference honors after posting 10.5 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds per game.
Title chances: The Zags finished with a four-game margin over second-place San Diego, and won 14 of their 17 WCC games by double-digit margins. In other words, they are better than everyone else until proven otherwise.

2. SAN DIEGO (19-10, 13-5)
The skinny: A year after finishing 2-16 in the WCC, the Toreros staged a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Pepperdine on Saturday to lock up the No. 2 seed into the league tournament. Given that 11-game improvement, it’s small wonder Cindy Fisher was honored as WCC Coach of the Year.
Who’s hot: Senior center Leticia Soares of Brazil is averaging 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds off the bench over the past seven games.
Key stat: All-WCC junior guard Myah Pace leads USD in scoring (11.6), steals (2.9) and minutes (34.5), is second in assists (2.9) and third in rebounds (5.0).
Title chances: The Toreros get a bye into the tournament semifinals, so they need just one victory to reach the championship game. But they are winless in nine tries against Gonzaga the past four seasons, so something will have to change for them to take home the WCC title.

3. BYU (18-10, 13-5)
The skinny: The Cougars take some momentum into the tournament, having won five of their past six games. BYU is led by the All-WCC backcourt duo of junior Paisley Johnson (15.2 points) and senior Brenna Drollinger (12.3 points, 4.3 assists). Johnson was MVP of the Cougars’ 2019 WCC tournament championship, scoring 19 points in the title-game victory over Gonzaga.
Who’s hot: Drollinger has scored at least 15 points in each of the past six games, averaging 18.3 over that span.
Key stat: BYU is third nationally with 189 blocked shots, and 6-foot-7 junior center Sara Hamson swatted 133 of those to earn WCC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Hamson also is fourth in the conference in rebounding (8.0).
Title chances: The Cougars beat Gonzaga three times last season, including in the WCC tournament game. But BYU lost both meetings this season, averaging just 43.5 points while shooting under 35 percent and coughing up 19 turnovers per game. This will be tougher.

4. PORTLAND (18-11, 11-7)
The skinny: First-year coach Michael Meek inherited a program that was 15-75 in WCC games the previous five seasons and was picked to finish last in the conference by the league’s coaches. But Meek’s squad surprised everyone, and won powered by the league’s highest-scoring offense (69.4 points). All-WCC forward Alex Fowler of Australia led conference freshmen in scoring (17.5 points) and was named WCC Newcomer of the Year after scoring 20 points or more nine times, including 35 vs. Santa Clara.
Who’s hot: Sophomore guard Haylee Andrews has scored in double figures in all but two games this season — something not even fellow Aussie Fowler can claim. The second-team All-WCC pick has scored 18 points or more 10 times.
Key stat: Yes, the Pilots rely on their offense but they also lead the WCC and rank 10th nationally in 3-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to convert just 26.3 percent from deep.
Title chances: Portland has taken huge strides this season, but Gonzaga looms as a likely opponent in the semifinals and the Pilots have dropped the past 23 meetings in the series.

5. PACIFIC (16-13, 9-9)
The skinny: The Tigers’ chances of moving through the bracket depend to a significant degree on the health status of two-time All-WCC selection Valerie Higgins. The junior guard, who is second in the WCC in scoring (16.5) and rebounding (9.1) and leads the conference in steals (3.8), sat out the past three games with a pectoral injury. She is considered day-to-day. The Tigers also feature All-WCC forward Brooklyn McDavid (14.8 points, 5.7 rebounds)
Who’s hot: Sophomore guard Kaylin Randhawa, who averaged 7.2 points through the Tigers’ first 26 games, more than doubled her production the past three games, contributing 15.0 points during Higgins’ absence.
Key stat: Randhawa is converting 84.5 percent (60-for-71) of her free throws, the second-highest mark in the WCC and higher than anyone on the Pacific men’s team.
Title chances: Tigers would play in the quarterfinals against No. 4 seed Portland, a team they have beaten twice this season. Gonzaga would be next up, and Pacific came within a point of upsetting the Zags back at Spokane in January. So perhaps not entirely far-fetched.

6. PEPPERDINE (14-14, 8-10)
The skinny: First-year coach Kristen Dowling’s Waves won five in a row to climb to 8-6 in conference before dropping their final four games — all to the top four tournament seeds, but three of them by four points or fewer. Guard Barbara Sitanggan, a first-team All-WCC pick as a senior, fills stat sheet: 10.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals, and a conference-best 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Who’s hot: Senior guard Hannah Friend, a transfer from Sacramento State, averaged 9.3 points through her first 20 games, but has found a groove and is scoring at a 13.6-point clip over the past seven outings.
Key stat: The Waves are last in the WCC in rebound margin (minus-3.9) but first in fewest turnovers (11.3).
Title chances: It’s been 14 seasons since Pepperdine advanced to the NCAA tournament, and stealing the WCC’s automatic bid here will be a challenge for the Waves.

7. SAINT MARY’S (11-18, 6-12)
The skinny: The Gaels thrive on perimeter shooting, converting a WCC-best 9.2 per game, and they lead the conference in free throw accuracy at 75.2 percent. So, they can definitely shoot. But the haven’t been able to win consistently because they also rank last in the conference in scoring defense (71.6 points allowed), thanks in part to their minus-6.4 turnover margin.
Who’s hot: Sophomore All-WCC wing Sam Simons, who ranks third in the conference with a 16.0 scoring mark, has averaged 19.8 over the past four games.
Key stat: Sophomore guard Taycee Wedin needs one 3-point basket to reach 100 for the season and break the WCC mark of 99. She leads the conference in 3-point accuracy (46.3 percent) and made five or more from beyond the arc eight times, including six in a career-high 24-point performance that sparked the Gaels’ 70-60 win over Gonzaga on Feb. 8.
Title chances: Saint Mary’s pulled off the upset of the WCC season but dropped 12 of its final 14 conference games, including its past five outings. On the heels of eight consecutive 20-win seasons, this just hasn’t been the Gaels’ year.

8. SANTA CLARA (11-18, 5-13)
The skinny: Picked fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Broncos could not recover from a seven-game losing streak that ran though Feb. 1. The dry spell overlapped with the absence of senior guard Tia Hay, a returning second-team All-WCC player, who missed five games with a foot injury.
Who’s hot: Junior forward Ashlyn Herlihy has produced 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds over the three-game stretch run.
Key stat: Hay leads the WCC in free-throw accuracy (84.6 percent) despite making just 9 of 15 the final three games. Prior to that, she was sinking a red-hot 92 percent.
Title chances: Remote, but the Broncos are finishing strong with two wins in their past three outings, including a 78-66 win over No. 2 seed San Diego.

9. USF (12-18, 5-13)
The skinny: The Dons struggled through an 0-9 start to the WCC but have come on strong, winning five of their past nine games, an impressive turnaround. USF is led by the productive trio of Mikayla Williams (14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds), Lucie Hoskova (14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds) and Leilah Vigil (12.3 points, 10.2 rebounds). Freshman Ioanna Krimili, a point guard from Greece, averaged 15.6 points through nine games before being sidelined by a foot injury.
Who’s hot: Vigil, a sophomore forward who led the WCC in rebounding, posted 14 double-doubles this season, including in each of the Dons’ final three games, when she averaged 20.3 points and 11.3 rebounds.
Key stat: The threesome of McWilliams, Hoskova and Vigil combined to average 41.2 points and 23.8 rebounds per game, accounting for 64 percent and 60 percent of the Dons’ respective totals.
Title chances: The Dons they enter the event on a roll, having beaten BYU, Pacific and Saint Mary’s in their final three games — and latter two on the road. Their first victory of the conference season came at Santa Clara, their opponent on Thursday afternoon.

10. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT (7-24, 3-15)
The skinny: The Lions showed a bit of a roar in mid-January when they won three a row. Unfortunately, that was the most recent success they’ve chewed on. LMU enters the WCC tournament riding an 11-game losing skid. Top scorer Chelsea Gibson (13.1 points) has missed the past six games.
Who’s hot: Freshman Ciera Ellington was scoring at a 10.8-point clip through 26 games, but she has ramped that up to 15.0 points and 5.8 rebounds over the past three games.
Key stat: The Lions had 12 turnovers or fewer in two of their past three games, but they are last in the WCC with 17.4 per outing.
Title chances: LMU has been outscored by nearly 15 points per game during its ongoing losing streak so it’s hard to develop an argument for the Lions pulling off a miracle.

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