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LAS VEGAS — All the momentum of BYU women's basketball's stirring run to the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals hit a brick wall on Monday afternoon.
And that wall was named Yvonne Ejim and the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Ejim had a stat-stuffing 21 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots, and Utah transfer Brynna Maxwell scored all 18 of her points in the second half to help No. 16 Gonzaga cruise to a 79-64 win over the fifth-seeded Cougars at Orleans Arena.
Kaylynne Truong added 13 points and seven assists for the Zags (28-3).
Nani Falatea had 17 points, four rebounds and three assists to lead BYU (16-15), which got just 9 points and a season-low nine rebounds from Lauren Gustin. The BYU single-season record holder had as little as 4 points and four rebounds in the first three quarters.
The junior forward from Salem Hills and WCC Defensive Player of the Year increased her total to 54 rebounds in three games, setting a WCC Tournament record for most boards.
"Tonight was not our best output," said BYU coach Amber Whiting, whose team committed 23 turnovers. "Some things broke down defensively, and we had some obvious issues on offense. But some of my ladies came ready to play, and they stuck together; that's one positive that we're looking at. They stuck together, they stayed the course, and they kept fighting until the end."
It's the lowest rebounding total for Gustin since she pulled down eight in last year's WCC Tournament final, also against Gonzaga.
Don't take that as a knock against Gustin, though; give credit to Ejim. The two battled in the low post, playing the way the game is supposed to be played, Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier.
ICE🥶🥶🥶@ZagWBB | #WCCHoops | 📺: https://t.co/wxSN7JPm4Xpic.twitter.com/jIYOnw48TJ— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) March 6, 2023
The respect was mutual, too.
"I really like playing against players like Lauren Gustin," said Ejim, last year's WCC Sixth Woman of the Year and a two-time All-WCC honoree. "I feel like it's a real test. She's such a great player, it's a real challenge. Maybe some players want to coast, but being able to compete with her is energizing to me. That builds some pride into my defense, to get the rebounds she usually gets.
"That competitiveness really puts energy into my defense. Credit to her; she's such a good player. She rebounds the ball like no other. It's nice to have that person in this season that I can play against."
In all, the Zags (28-3) outrebounded BYU, 29-25, and netted 19 second-chance on 10 offensive rebounds, cruising to a 28-12 margin in the paint.
Emma Calvert posted 13 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists for the Cougars.
A speedy-and-streaky first quarter ended with Gonzaga leading, 14-11. The Bulldogs got out to a 10-2 lead before Calvert sparked a 7-0 run to pull the Cougars back into it.
Calvert had a team-high 5 points after the first quarter, which saw BYU make just 3-of-12 field goals.
BYU took its first lead at the 8:30 mark of the second quarter, when Falatea found Calvert for an easy lay-in. Gonzaga retook the lead 24 seconds later, but didn't lead by more than a possession for the rest of the half until the Zags held BYU scoreless for the final 3:12 of the half en route to a 31-25 halftime advantage.
Ejim had 9 points, seven rebounds, three steals and a block in the first half, and Kaylynne Truong, the WCC Player of the Year, added 11 points and four assists while sitting part of the half with two fouls.
Maxwell paced a 9-0 run out of the break, and Ejim pushed the lead to 44-29 with a pair of free throws with 5:53 left in the third.
"That was a huge quarter, 27-10," said Fortier, the WCC Coach of the Year and a finalist for national coach of the year. "We really wanted to compete coming out of halftime, and that was the No. 1 thing I told our team at halftime.
"That start of the second half, we executed every play how it was supposed to be executed. If we had missed one of those shots, it would be OK because we executed. But the moral of the story is if you execute well, you're going to knock down most of your shots."
The rest was history, dropping the Cougars back to .500 and sending the Zags to Tuesday's WCC championship.
But by clawing back to 16-16 record, BYU made itself eligible for postseason play. The Cougars won't contend for a Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) berth, assistant coach Lee Cummard told BYUtv after the game. But they have put themselves into consideration for a WNIT bid.
That field recently expanded to 64 teams, including 32 at-large bids. Cummard added that a win Monday against Gonzaga would have "definitely" locked up an NIT bid.
That basket counts😤😤@byuwbb | #WCCHoops | 📺: https://t.co/wxSN7JOOfppic.twitter.com/l0zxZOXWUp— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) March 6, 2023
There are also other considerations to make, including the health of the team. When Ari Mackey-Williams limped into the postgame media room after scoring 5 points with five assists, the New Zealand native turned to Whiting and said, "my body's broken."
She's not alone; Mackey-Williams played 38 minutes for a squad that went just seven deep Monday, and Gustin and Falatea have both averaged 39 minutes per game (Gustin played all 40 against Gonzaga).
"These girls gave everything they had," Whiting said. "Those are the types of players I want to coach day-in and day-out. Right now, this moment can't define us. It won't define us. But we've just got to pick ourselves back up and get back to work tomorrow."
So for now, they'll wait and hope.
"I think we've got to just stay together right now," Gustin said. "We don't want to end our season on that note. There are a lot of things we've got to pick up, clean up, and get ready. We don't want to be done right now.
"We didn't come out offensively or defensively the best we could have. But in the end, we came together and tried to fight. We stayed together, which was a positive. So we've just got to get back in the gym and get ready for whatever is next."