Gonzaga beats San Diego 79-71 for West Coast title

San Diego's Myah Pace (10) drives past Gonzaga's Laura Stockton (11) during the first half of the West Coast Conference tournament championship NCAA women's college basketball game Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

LAS VEGAS (AP) Gonzaga went into the season with plenty of question marks, with new players on the roster and returning players filling new roles.

The regular season ended just the way it did a year ago: with a West Coast Conference championship.

Jill Barta scored 32 points and hit six free throws in the final 43 seconds, helping Gonzaga beat San Diego 79-71 on Tuesday to repeat as WCC tournament champions.

”We just worked out to our goals and we had people step up all year long,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Portier said.

Gonzaga (27-5) shut San Diego down in the third quarter on its way to a 16-point lead, but had trouble breaking the Toreros‘ pressing and trapping defense in the closing minutes. San Diego (17-15) cut the lead to 73-66 with a 9-0 run, but ran out of time.

Zykera Rice had 17 points and the Bulldogs made all 16 of their free throws to earn their eighth WCC tournament title and fourth in six years.

Barta, the WCC player of the year, was 10 for 10 on free throws and 10 for 19 from the field.

”She’s a big-game player,” Fortier said. ”I will tell you, she’s hyper competitive and wants to win.”

San Diego shot 9 of 27 in the second half and went 1 for 5 from 3-point range overall to see its upset NCAA Tournament bid come to an end.

Maya Hood scored 23 points and Sydney Williams had 20 for the Toreros.

”We got down a little too much,” San Diego coach Cindy Fisher said. ”I was thinking about using the full trap too early and then we would run out of gas. But then we used it. They fought, and they fought, and gave us a chance of getting right back in it.”

The Bulldogs are no strangers to playing for championships, reaching the WCC title game for the 13th time.

San Diego was the surprise finalist, knocking off No. 3 seed BYU in its opener and seventh-seeded Pacific in the semifinals.

Gonzaga swept both regular-season meetings, rolling 63-44 in San Diego, but needing a late 3-pointer from Laura Stockton to hold off the Toreros 58-54 in Spokane.

San Diego got off to a fast start in the third meeting, making 12 of 19 shots in the opening quarter to lead 25-20.

Gonzaga found a different gear in the second quarter. Closing in on the Toreros on defense and making 6 of their first 8 shots, the Bulldogs went on an 11-0 run to go up 37-31.

”We knew we couldn’t let them score 25 points in a quarter and win the game,” Fortier said.

Gonzaga made 16 of 28 shots in the first half to lead 45-40.

The Bulldogs extended the lead to 61-50 in the third quarter by shutting the Toreros down. San Diego made 1 of 12 shots in the quarter and scored five points.

Gonzaga stretched the lead to 16 early in the fourth quarter. That’s when San Diego started giving the Bulldogs trouble with pressure defense before the Bulldogs closed it out.

”At the end, we had a really good fight and we would have gotten back into the game if we had a little more time,” Hood said.

BIG PICTURE

San Diego’s run to the title game gives it something to build upon heading into next season.

Gonzaga should improve its NCAA Tournament seeding by winning its second straight WCC title.

HOOD’S CAREER

Hood has been at San Diego since arriving from nearby La Jolla Country Day. She sat out a season after becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son, and missed another season with a torn ACL.

With Tuesday’s loss, Hood’s career comes to a close. Or does it?

”She’s coming back for a seventh season,” Fisher said.

Not really. But Hood left a mark at San Diego. She is in the top 10 in nine major categories for the Toreros, including tops in offensive and total rebounds.

”There have been ups and downs,” she said. ”With all the adversity, tearing my ACL, having my son, and here again in the championship game. It’s been such an awesome run.”