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Las Vegas • The championship net still hanging around her neck in the postgame news conference, BYU senior Dani Peterson said she was exhausted, out of energy and emotionally drained while trying to put into words how she managed to play the best game of her career on Monday in the West Coast Conference Tournament women's championship game.
"Tonight was just my night, I guess," she said.
With Peterson scoring a career-high 18 points on a Noah Hartsock-like display of baseline shooting, and grabbing clutch rebound after clutch rebound to record 12 caroms, the Cougars punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007 on Monday afternoon. They stunned No. 23-ranked Gonzaga 78-66 in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Gonzaga crowd of 2,941 at Orleans Arena.
"Dani played the best game I have ever seen her play," said BYU's tournament MVP, Haley Steed, after engineering the upset with 17 points and eight assists while being relentlessly hounded by GU's athletic guards for 39 minutes. "She was awesome."
None of Peterson's 12 rebounds was more important than the offensive one she grabbed with 3:22 remaining and Gonzaga having cut BYU's lead to 68-59, BYU coach Jeff Judkins said.
Eighteen seconds later, reserve Stephanie Vermunt hit a 3-pointer, and the Cougars could start plotting their postgame speeches about ending their five-year drought in the big dance.
"Whatever Dani Peterson drank today, I am going to make sure she drinks the rest of the way," Judkins said. "She had the game of her life."
Team was BYU's theme all season, and although Peterson and Steed were spectacular, it took strong games from six or seven other Cougars to do the deed, after GU embarrassed them 77-60 on Feb. 25 in Spokane.
Jennifer Hamson added 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds off the bench after being told by Judkins she couldn't replicate her 0-for-3, one-point performance in 20 minutes in Spokane and avoid another fire-and-brimstone tirade from the coach. Having been outscored 46-18 in the paint in Spokane, the Cougars won that battle 26-20 Monday.
"They turned the tables on us," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
Saturday's hero, Lexi Eaton, had eight points, while Kim Parker chipped in seven points and 10 assists. League MVP Kristen Riley was saddled with foul trouble, but she still managed 10 rebounds and five points in 23 minutes.
The Cougars (26-6) admitted after the game that they didn't believe they would get into the NCAAs without a win.
"You could call us desperate," said Steed.
Then they went out and shot 71.4 percent in the first half, which produced just a 36-35 halftime lead, because the Cougars turned the ball over 11 times in the first 20 minutes. And GU was crisp early, too, shooting 48.3 percent and having Haiden Palmer and her 11-point scoring average go off for 16 first-half points en route to 28, a career-high.
Hamson, Peterson and Steed made the all-tourney team with Gonzaga's Palmer and Kayla Standish (18 points).
"I can't be more proud of my team. We have gone through a lot this year," Judkins said. "Things looked bad sometimes, but I thought tonight was one of our best performances as a team."
And the BYU seniors Riley, Peterson and Steed (who was on the 2007 team, but didn't play due to a knee injury) can say they finally broke the NCAA drought.
"I don't care what conference we are in," Steed said. "This is fun."
BYU 78, Gonzaga 66
R In short • BYU women race past Gonzaga in second half to win WCC tournament championship, earn first NCAA Tournament spot since 2007.
Key moment • BYU ends first half on a 10-3 run to gain lead, never trails in second half.
Key stat • BYU shoots 71.4 percent in first half, 60.4 percent for game.