Pepperdine eventually found its shooting touch Friday night. But by then, the Waves had already shot themselves in the foot.
Running into another semifinal-round roadblock, Pepperdine failed to recover from a disastrous start and fell to St. Mary’s, 68-56, in the West Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament at Toso Pavilion.
The Waves (21-10), losing in the semifinals for the third consecutive year, dug a hole for themselves by missing 23 of 29 shots in the first half and falling behind, 28-17. St. Mary’s took command with a 16-2 run to end the half.
“St. Mary’s played really good defense and took us out of what we wanted to do,” said Pepperdine Coach Mark Trakh, whose team beat the Gaels twice in the regular season. “They have big guards and when they’re up in your face, it’s hard to shoot over them.”
Pepperdine’s starting guards--Dana Sulenski, Samantha Rigley and Angie White--made 11 of 36 shots, including three of 15 from three-point range. The Waves made 20 of 59 shots (33.9%) in the game.
“Our No. 1 emphasis was playing [Pepperdine’s] screens well,” St. Mary’s Coach Kelly Graves said. “We wanted to play better defense than in our first two meetings. That was our key to success.”
After Pepperdine went more than 12 minutes without a basket, St. Mary’s took its biggest lead, 41-23, early in the second half before the Waves finally started hitting perimeter shots.
White made her second three-point basket and reserve guard Liz Paulson hit back-to-back shots from behind the arc to pull the Waves to within 54-47 with 6:11 left.
But St. Mary’s answered with an 8-0 run that included two three-point baskets by point guard J.R. Payne. The Gaels were never threatened down the stretch, making six of 10 free throws in the final 1:15 to extend their winning streak to seven games.
Forward Tracy Morris had 23 points and 12 rebounds, and Payne scored 18 for the Gaels (20-8), who will play Santa Clara (22-7)--a 67-58 winner over Portland--in the championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday.
“We really focused on spreading the floor and being patient on offense,” said Payne, who made seven of nine shots. “We got into a rhythm.”
White scored 16 points and Paulson added 15 for Pepperdine, which set a tournament record by making all 10 of its free throws.
White, a senior point guard, said the Waves had trouble defending St. Mary’s motion offense.
“They ran a lot of back-door plays and we didn’t respond to that very well,” she said.
Although No. 2 Pepperdine was seeded higher than No. 3 St. Mary’s, Trakh was satisfied with the completion of his fifth season as coach. The Waves finished with their best record in NCAA play and had their highest-ever finish--second--in the WCC.
“We were picked to finish fifth in our conference,” he said. “We did better than everybody thought we’d do, so I considered this [the tournament] dessert. We had a good year and we’re proud of our kids.”