The only thing that the BYU Cougars looked worthy of a bid for in yesterday's WCC women's basketball championship game was team free throw shooting contest.
The lone bright spot of their 71-57 loss to the Gonzaga Bulldogs was their 21-for-21 free throw shooting performance, marking a generally disastrous end to an otherwise solid WCC season.
BYU had just 14 points in the first half, 8 of which were courtesy of 6-foot-7 WCC Player of the Year Jennifer Hamson. At one point in the second half, they had as many points (18) as they did turnovers. Their highest usage player during the season, sophomore Lexi Eaton, contributed stellar 11-for-11 free throw shooting, but shot just 2-for-18 from the field - she would've had the individual highlight of the day after pulling off a Randolph Childress-like dribble move (a moment in conference championship history that still makes me shake my head and chuckle) to send her defender stumbling to the floor, but she airballed the ensuing shot.
Eaton's incomplete highlight moment sort of underscored a point made by Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune: without taking away anything from the Bulldogs' defensive game plan, a lot of what prevented them from making a respectable score a competitive game was nightmarish offensive futility.
Between [15:52 in the first half] and the 14:18 mark of the second half, when Kim Beeston made a 3-pointer, BYU missed 20 of 21 shots from the field and committed 17 turnovers.
That's hard to do, even if a very good opponent is involved. Asked whether BYU's offense or Gonzaga's defense played the bigger role, Hamson said it was "hard to tell which was which." The answer is always a combination, but the Cougars clearly were off their game. Subtracting the decent work of Hamson and Beeston, BYU made 3 of 30 shots.
Subtracting the decent work of Hamson and Beeston, BYU made 3 of 30 shots.
Thankfully for the Cougars, both they and the Bulldogs were projected to be tournament-bound regardless of the outcome of that game because nobody on the fence about BYU's worthiness for an at-large bid could have possibly watched that game and believed that they deserve to be in a field competing for a national championship.
Ultimately, though the eye test of the last game played is not a primary criteria for earning a tournament bid and their resume actually looks solid on paper: beating Gonzaga and Saint Mary's once already this season in addition to Washington State (which might look better after they toppled Cal in the Pac-12 tournament) certainly strengthens their selection sheet. Yet as Steven Bell of the S-Factor wrote nearly a month ago, the problem is that (like Gonzaga), "Their non-conference season was full of RPI-boosting teams that aren't quite cupcakes." The issue here is that they haven't been tested with a gauntlet of tournament teams the way some lesser-touted teams have, which makes their RPI a bit illusory.
What's Hamson's WNBA potential?
BYU senior Jennifer Hamson was voted both WCC Player of the Year and WCC Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first player in league history to do so. So with her dominance in the WCC, does she have a shot at the WNBA?
What BYU certainly has going for it is the presence of WCC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Jennifer Hamson - during the broadcast, the commentators mentioned her as someone who WNBA scouts are trying to persuade to commit to professional basketball. Despite the team's poor performance in the championship game, Hamson's presence in the paint was a major reason why the score remained respectable on both ends of the floor and she snagged a spot on the All-Tournament team for her efforts along with well-traveled Pacific senior KiKi Moore and three Gonzaga players.
So we've actually buried the lede a bit here, depending on your perspective: Gonzaga will be making their sixth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament after winning their fifth WCC title in six years. The Bulldogs had three players on the All-Tournament team - 2014 WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Sunny Greinacher, Jazmine Redmon, and Lindsay Sherbert.
They looked like every bit of the dominant team in their conference that we've come to expect, even when leading scorer Haiden Palmer didn't play well enough during the tournament to even get All-Tournament recognition.
What might be most impressive is not only Gonzaga's ability to reload repeatedly after losing their top players to graduation, but also the energy that the program has built around women's basketball behind the quality product they put on the floor, as described by Aaron Morton of the Deseret News.
Yet Gonzaga isn't the only source of energy in the conference - to a point illustrated by Bell's piece, if only indirectly, the WCC is gaining increasing relevance on the national landscape even without taking newcomer Pacific into account.
The conference had four teams that were at some point in the conversation, whether justified in hindsight or not, for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament - they could be a two-bid conference for the second time in three seasons after only doing so four times in the last 15. And although this season's tournament semifinal ultimately stayed true to the regular season standings, the bottom of the conference is also showing signs of promise for the future: four of the five players selected to the 2014 All-WCC Freshman Team were from the the bottom four teams in the conference, demonstrating the potential for a bright future.
Long story short, just from watching games in the WCC, the conference is getting better from top to bottom. It might not be obvious after days on which Gonzaga dominates their second place competition and their 6-foot-7 star, but the conference feels like it might be at a tipping point of taking the next step toward becoming impossible to ignore.
For more on the conference's tournament, check out our 2014 WCC tournament storystream.