Haiden Palmer, Taelor Karr power Gonzaga to 5th straight NCAA berth

LAS VEGAS -- Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves expected to play the West Coast Conference championship game without Taelor Karr after the senior guard hurt her back in the semifinals.

After testing it out during warm-ups, Karr announced to her coach that she was ready to go, giving the Bulldogs just the lift they needed to make another trip to the NCAA tournament.

Fighting through pain and a rough start, Karr had 14 points, six assists and five rebounds to help lift Gonzaga to a 62-50 win over San Diego in the WCC final Monday, earning the Bulldogs an NCAA berth for the fifth straight season.

"I'm a big believer that you have to have your whole team and when she toughened it up, a decided 'Hey, I'm going to play,' I think that lifted the rest of the team's spirits," Graves said. "She's obviously one of our leaders and best players, and really a tough kid. A lot of kids would have sat this out and she didn't want to."

With Karr laboring early against the physical Toreros, Gonzaga (27-5) got off to a slow start offensively. The Bulldogs made up for it with their defense and two big runs keyed by Karr, one spanning halftime and another to pull away in the second half.

Tournament MVP Haiden Palmer led top-seeded Gonzaga with 18 points and Sunny Greinacher added 12 to help the Bulldogs win the WCC title for the fourth time in five years.

"I know going in that I coming in that I was going to give it my all, try to play, didn't want to let my team down in the championship game," Karr said. "My teammates all rallied around me."

Second-seeded San Diego (21-9) slowed Gonzaga down early by playing physical, but couldn't make up for 20 turnovers or an 0-for-5 night from 3-point range to come up short in its bid to win the WCC tournament for the fourth time.

Amy Kame had 13 points and Maya Hood 10 for the Toreros, who now have to hope for an at-large bid to reach the NCAA tournament for the fourth time and first since 2008.

"Anytime you can go home, leave your tournament, take a couple days off and get rest, go back to practice to get ready for the postseason, it's such a benefit," San Diego coach Cindy Fisher said. "We will benefit from it. We will improve in the next 10 days, whenever we get to play."

The Gonzaga women have followed the footsteps of the men's program, becoming a mid-major monster in recent years.

Since reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2007, the Bulldogs have made the bracket five of the past six years, including three trips to the regionals.

Gonzaga went 15-1 in the West Coast this year -- 14 straight victories to close -- to win its ninth straight regular-season title and earned a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Bulldogs earned a bye into the semifinals and cruised over BYU 62-43 to reach the title game for the seventh straight year.

San Diego has been on a little run of its own, putting together consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in program history. The Toreros finished second in the WCC during the regular season and also had an easy semifinal, rolling over St. Mary's 74-53 to reach the championship game for the fifth time and give coach Cindy Fisher her 200th career victory.

That earned San Diego a shot at Gonzaga, a team it hasn't had much luck against and had been in the title game seven straight years.

The Toreros went into the final with 11 straight losses, including by 20 on the road and 12 at home this season. The last time San Diego beat the Bulldogs was in the 2008 WCC championship game for its third conference title.

The Toreros gave themselves a chance this year by mucking it up early.

Contesting every shot and passing lane while holding Karr mostly in check, San Diego led by six midway through and held the Bulldogs to 12 of 32 shooting in the first half. Karr didn't get many looks at the basket early, missing her first four shots while going scoreless the opening 17 minutes.

The problem for San Diego was that Gonzaga was playing just as well on defense.

Trailing 18-12, the Bulldogs forced the Toreros into four turnovers in five possessions and 10 in the half. San Diego shot 10 of 27 in the first half, missing its only 3-point attempt.

Karr got her first points on a layup with 3:14 left and followed a steal and assist on Palmer's layup.

Palmer, who had 12 first-half points, added a late 3-pointer in the corner, helping Gonzaga take a 29-25 lead.

The Bulldogs then scored the next six for an 11-0 run spanning halftime, going up 35-25 on Greinacher's turnaround jumper.

San Diego chipped the lead down to 42-40, but started to pull away with a 10-2 run. Karr hit her first 3-point in six attempts during the run, then fed Greinacher with a bounce pass to set up a three-point play that put the Bulldogs up 52-42 with 5 minutes left.

"I thought we played a great first half, but they really came out and muscled us around in the second," Kame said. "We wanted to do that to them, but that was something they did well coming out of halftime."