University of San Diego womenâ€™s basketball players, coaches, staff, family members and fans exchanged hugs, shed tears, took pictures, posed with the West Coast Conference Tournament trophy and enjoyed the ceremonial cutting of the net on Sunday afternoon.
Sophomore forward Morgan Hendersonâ€™s 20 points and senior point guard Amanda Regoâ€™s 10 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds lifted USD to a 70-66 victory over Gonzaga at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. The win not only secured USDâ€™s first WCC Tournament title since 2000 but it also earned the team the WCCâ€™s automatic berth into the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The real USD hardware, however, didnâ€™t make its appearance until a few players ran to the locker room early in the celebration and returned with props that brought an inspirational theme, instilled by third-year head coach Cindy Fisher before the WCC Tournament began on Thursday, into reality.
White hard hats, given to each player, had the words “Blue Blood” on the front, â€œGo to Workâ€ on one side; an â€œSDâ€ logo on the other side and each player had her number on the top of it. Echoing Fisherâ€™s claim that the Toreros were â€œa blue-collar team,â€ the hats fit well as a motivating reminder.
â€œThis is something Iâ€™ve wanted to do since the moment I stepped foot on this campus,â€ Rego said. â€œItâ€™s been a goal for us every single season. All the hard work, all the hours, all of the tears that we put into this finally paid off. It is absolutely amazing.â€
The Torerosâ€™ accomplishment continued a strong late-season run â€” now four wins in a row and 6 of their last 7 â€”Â that almost wiped away thoughts of the teamâ€™s 0-5 start in WCC regular-season play in January.
â€œThat seems so long ago,â€ Rego said. â€œIt would have been really easy when we got down 0-5 to just roll over and let the season get away from us. But we knew we were underperforming, we knew we were a far better team and we just needed to make some adjustments, re-evaluate some things and thatâ€™s what we did.â€
The Toreros (19-12 overall) won their next four WCC games and finished 7-7 in conference. Although Gonzaga won the regular-season title with a 13-1 mark and swept the Toreros in conference play, USDâ€™s rally earned it the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
The Toreros opened the tournament by accomplishing something it had not done in Regoâ€™s three previous tries â€” win a first-round tournament game. Amanda Sprague had a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman Sam Child led four Toreros in double figures for points for a 61-57 win over Portland on Thursday.
Santa Clara was next in line for USD on Saturday. Kiva Herman led the way this time, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the Torerosâ€™ 72-66 semifinal win. Henderson and Sprague each had 14 points and Rego added 10 points and eight assists. The victory put USD into the title game against Gonzaga, which was riding an eight-game winning streak of its own and 16 of 17, including tournament wins over Pepperdine (77-67 Thursday) and Saint Maryâ€™s (81-64 Saturday).
All of that mattered little to USD when Sundayâ€™s game began. The Toreros jumped out a 27-10 run, and Henderson made five of her six 3-pointers in the game in the first half to give USD a 38-29 lead at halftime.
â€œI thought our kids came out so focused, so ready to play,â€ Fisher said. â€œOur defense was outstanding the first 20 minutes of the game. I just thought we really came to work. We believed from the jump.â€
Gonzaga made several attempts to get back into the game, but USD answered the challenge every time. The Bulldogs first cut the lead to two, 47-45, with 13:05 left on a 3-pointer by Tiffanie Shives, but Hendersonâ€™s last successful 3-pointer gave USD a 52-46 lead with 9:59 left. Gonzagaâ€™s Michelle Elliott made a 3-pointer to cut USDâ€™s lead to 60-59 with 4:18 left, but Hermanâ€™s basket gave USD another cushion. Gonzagaâ€™s Heather Bowman, who scored a game-high 25 points, made a basket with 3:30 remaining to make it 62-61 USD, but Herman, Sprague and Henderson each made two free throws in the final 1:57 to put the game away.
The celebration ensued on Sunday afternoon, the realization of USD making a statement about the state of its womenâ€™s basketball program. The next step, playing in the NCAA Tournament, begins on either March 22 and 23, the days of all first-round games. The tournament field will be announced on March 17.
â€œIt means everything,â€ Fisher said of advancing to the NCAA Tournament. â€œThis team, in particular, really believed that this goal could happen. We had been talking about it from Day One, that we werenâ€™t willing to accept anything but an NCAA Tournament bid and we were willing to continue to go to work until we got that. It doesnâ€™t matter who we go against â€” this team will be ready to play and ready to compete.â€
USD womenâ€™s basketball history in tournament play:
WCC Tournament all-time record: 12-12 (Won tournament titles in 1993, 2000, 2008)
NCAA Tournament record: 0-2 (lost to Nebraska â€™93; lost to Notre Dame, â€™00)
WNIT record: 0-1 (lost to Santa Barbara, 2007)