CORRECTION: Zags leading scorer Keani Albanez’s 20 points on Tuesday weren’t a career-high. She scored a career-high 21 points in December 2013. She’s scored in double figures against WCC oponents seven times this season.
Scoreless is hardly the way you want to play your final conference tournament championship game. But when you see your younger classmate has your back, guiding your team to an automatic NCAA tournament berth, you forget all about those missed shots.
At least that’s what it looked like on ESPNU when Zags leading-scorer, senior G Haiden Palmer (15.5 points on 43.6 percent shooting), missed all eight shot attempts but junior G Keani Albanez broke out with 20 points to lead No. 18 Gonzaga to another West Coast Conference tournament championship on Tuesday. The Zags defeated rival BYU 71-57 before 7,898 fans at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The tournament championship is Gonzaga’s sixth in its past seven years. In the latest ESPN bracket prediction, whose author Charlie Creme has a 95 percent accuracy rate in the past five years, GU (29-4) is headed to Seattle as the No. 6 seed to play Pac-12 conference champion USC, the No. 11 seed, in the opening-round of the NCAA tournament at Alaska Airlines Arena. The Zags are the 14th team to clinch one of the 32-automatic tickets to the Big Dance.
Albanez opened Gonzaga’s scoring and nailed a three-pointer with four seconds left in the opening half to give GU a 30-14 lead headed into the break. When BYU went on a mild rally in the second half to cut the deficit to 50-40, Albanez scored a jumper to ignite an 11-2 run.
Palmer, whose final three points were all from the foul line, joined senior G Jazmine Redmon to help with the defensive attack. True, the Zags don’t matchup with BYU C Jennifer Hamson, who’s 6-foot-7. She finished with 24 points and seven rebounds. Everyone else in BYU blue was 7-for-39 from the field in the game (17.9 percent).
The Zags defense is to blame. GU forced 21 miscues, outscoring the Cougars 19-0 in points off turnovers. Palmer, Albanez and Redmon had three steals apiece. The main victim was Lexi Eaton, a sophomore G who ranked fourth in the WCC in scoring. She had eight turnovers.
GU junior C Sunny Greinacher had 16 points for while teammate Lindsay Sherbert, a junior reserve, finished with 15 points.
Gonzaga will have a break in anticipation of Monday’s NCAA tournament selection announcement. The Zags are highly likely to play at UW because the tournament is aiming to increase attendance for the opening-round games by having teams likely to advance host. There are 16 host sites this season.