BYU 78, No. 23 Gonzaga 66
Even with 25 wins, Brigham Young figured the NCAA selection committee might look the other way.
The Cougars left nothing to chance, upsetting three-time defending West Coast Conference tournament champion Gonzaga 78-66 on Monday to earn the automatic bid.
Dani Peterson scored a career-high 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead BYU (26-6).
''Whatever Dani Peterson drank today I'll make sure she drinks again,'' BYU coach Jeff Judkins said of the senior forward, who left the interview room still wearing the cut-down net. ''She played the game of her life.''
So did Haley Steed, who was named tournament most valuable player after scoring 17 points and handing out eight assists while playing 39 minutes Monday.
''Haley is a dream,'' Judkins said of the shortest player in the field at 5-foot-4. ''People don't realize how lucky you are as a coach. That's why I'm going to convince her to come back next year because I need her. To me she's Peyton Manning. She runs her team.''
Steed, who has overcome three torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries, has a year of eligibility remaining because of a medical redshirt, and has indicated she would decide after the season whether to return.
Now the season goes on.
Steed is the lone holdover from the last BYU squad to qualify for the NCAAs but she was out with the first ACL tear and didn't play in 2007.
''It's been forever,'' Steed said. ''We've (also) been in a drought in conference tournaments, and haven't won a conference tournament game (since 2007). So Saturday (a semifinal win over San Diego) was fun and we wanted to take one more step to win this. We really didn't feel like we'd get into the NCAA tournament unless we won this game. That was our No. 1 goal over anything else.''
While BYU was playing in its first WCC tournament after 12 years in the Mountain West Conference, the Bulldogs had owned the WCC.
The top-seeded Bulldogs were playing in a record sixth straight championship and seeking to become the first team to win four straight WCC women's tournament titles.
After trailing by eight in the first half, BYU grabbed control in the second by turning up its defense, holding Gonzaga to 34.4 percent shooting after the break.
It also dominated the boards, holding a 36-21 advantage overall.
No rebounds were bigger than the one Peterson pulled down after Gonzaga cut the lead to nine and Kristen Riley missed a 3-pointer with 3:22 remaining. Stephanie Vermunt would follow with a 3-pointer that bumped BYU's lead back to 12 points.
''She got it in traffic, and you could tell she had fire in her eyes and was excited about it,'' Judkins said of the rebound.
Fierce post play had carried No. 23 Gonzaga (26-5) to the WCC regular-season title. But not Monday.
''They turned the tables on us inside. We had too few points in the paint today,'' Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
The loss was a disappointing turnabout for the Bulldogs, who split the season series with BYU but won by 14 points just nine days ago.
''We were motivated, so we don't have any excuses tonight. We were just beaten by a better team.''
He still was hopeful of making it to the NCAAs.
''We won the conference championship outright,'' Graves said. ''We have our sights set high. I told our kids to hold their heads high (after today's loss). This is a very good team. This is as good a team as I've ever coached.''
The Cougars shot 71.4 percent in the first half and 60.4 percent overall. Their reserves also outscored Gonzaga's 23-4, led by Jennifer Hamson's 17 on 7-of-11 shooting.
''Jen got challenged and came through,'' Judkins said.
Sophomore Haiden Palmer led Gonzaga with a career-high 28 points. Kayla Standish added 18, but hit only 6-of-16 shots.
''I had a lot of confidence after my first couple of shots,'' Palmer said. ''I started feeling good. I just had to get open to get clear shots. I was able to get open off their screens.''
The sophomore made her first seven shots from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, and finished the first half with 16 points. The Cougars fought back behind freshman Lexi Eaton, Riley and Steed, outscoring Gonzaga 12-3 over the final five minutes of the half to take a 36-35 lead.
In the end, the BYU women did what the BYU men could not do Saturday when they were ousted by the Gonzaga men in the semifinals.
While the Cougar men have to wait and hope, the BYU women are in.
''It's not just going to the tournament,'' Judkins said. ''We want to cause damage, and represent this conference and this university so the next time it comes and we do well, the NCAA will look at it and say the WCC deserves two teams.''