LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Alyssa Shoji scored a season-high 18 points and Lena Gipson had 14 points and 14 rebounds allowing Santa Clara to knock off USF 62-58 in the opening game of the 2011 West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Shoji made five 3-pointers, including consecutive three-balls midway through the second half, as Santa Clara (11-18) hung on to a tenuous lead and finished down the stretch, despite allowing USF (4-25) a chance to tie it in the closing seconds.
"I am really proud of the fact we stuck with it and made plays when we needed to," said Santa Clara Head Coach Jennifer Mountain. "Alyssa was great, hitting big shots for us. We have to have a better effort against Portland tomorrow but I just think we were a little tight. The five-eight game is a tough one to play in."
The fifth-seeded Broncos advance to play the fourth-seeded Pilots Saturday at 12 noon. Santa Clara beat Portland in the quarterfinals a year ago, 74-61. The winner will play top-seed and No. 20 Gonzaga on Sunday.
The Broncos came out and made their first three 3-point attempts, courtesy of Shoji, Meagan Fulps and Ricki Radanovich. Gipson added a bank shot in the paint, which would give Santa Clara a 13-5 edge at the 13-minute mark of the first half.
Offensive rebounds gave USF some extra chances early on and despite shooting just 2 for 12 to begin the game, the Dons were able to hang around, trailing by just three, 14-11, after Bailey Barbour's turn-around jumper.
"I don't know if it was jitters or it being the first game of the tournament, but we couldn't really get it going in the first half," said Mountain. "We've been in that eighth seed and know that USF had nothing to lose. You are expected to win, being the fifth seed; it is always a tough game."
With neither team shooting the ball particularly well two more Shoji threes made a big difference. In transition, Shoji dished off to Kathy Willinsky for a layup and SCU was in front 24-17 with 5:52 left in the first half.
The Broncos lead grew to 11 before Rheina Ale made USF's first three-pointer, then drove to the basket for two more. Ale's offense sparked a 9-0 run for the Dons just before halftime. Santa Clara led 32-28 at the break.
Ale scored 13 points to lead all USF scorers and Kelly Jo Mullaney added nine.
Gipson and Shoji began the second half by scoring but it was USF getting within one, 36-35, on a Mullaney mid-range jump shot at the 15-minute mark.
"We gave them hope by letting them stick around," said Mountain. "We never really closed the deal at any point in the game."
Just when it looked like USF may take a lead for the first time, Santa Clara turned on the offense, with Willinsky and Fulps extending the advantage back out to seven, 43-36. A frantic pace ensued and USF reeled off seven straight to even things up 43-43. Shoji caught fire at the midway point of the second half, making two timely triples to keep Santa Clara in front.
"My shots were falling today," said Shoji. "I've been up and down all season and knew this was a big game and was excited for it. The flow of the game gave me open looks and I was able to knock them down."
Clinging to a one-point lead with 6:53 to play, Gipson scored on a powerful post move in the lane, making it 53-50 Broncos.
With 1:58 left and Santa Clara leading by just two, 55-53, Fulps drove across the lane and scored a pivotal basket to give the Broncos a four-point lead. A steal at the other end and another bucket, this time by Willinsky, would force USF to foul, as SCU led by six.
Usually automatic free throw shooters, Radanovich and Fulps, missed front ends of one-on-one opportunities in the closing moments, and a back-court steal gave USF a chance to tie the game with 9 seconds left.
Fortunately for Santa Clara, Viana Singleterry was unable to get off what would have been a wide-open tying 3-point attempt, mishandling a pass in the corner with five seconds on the clock.