Gonzaga women have challenge for WCC title 

After a decade of domination, Gonzaga finally has a challenger or two for the top spot in the West Coast Conference.

And coach Kelly Graves couldn't be happier.

"It speaks so well for our conference," he said. "Our conference is a ton better now and I love it. For so long, we've needed another team to go with us. Our men have had it with Saint Mary's. We've wanted that competition."

The 22nd-ranked Zags (17-3, 6-1) now have it with BYU, which joined the WCC this season after being a founding member of the Mountain West Conference. The 23rd-ranked Lady Cougars entered the Top 25 on Monday for the first time in five seasons.

Saint Mary's isn't far behind the two in the polls as the Gaels also are receiving votes and already have beaten both BYU and Gonzaga — ending the Zags' 40-game conference winning streak.

With both Gonzaga and BYU ranked, it gave the WCC two teams in the poll for the first time ever. The conference is turning into a women's basketball power. While it's common for the Big 12, Big East, SEC or ACC to have numerous teams ranked, it's much rarer for mid-majors.

The WCC became one of the few non-BCS conferences over the past decade to get two teams ranked in the same week, joining the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West conferences.

BYU (18-3, 7-1) got ranked for the first time since Nov. 27, 2006. Besides their loss to Saint Mary's, the Lady Cougars' only other losses were to No. 5 Duke and Kansas State.

"It's great to be back," Lady Cougars coach Jeff Judkins said. "It's been a while. Sure we have a target now. I'm not one to hide stuff from our team. As a coach, I'll tell the kids how it is. We're ranked and it hasn't happened for a while."

BYU will be on the road this week playing at Seattle and Santa Clara.

The Lady Cougars and Zags will play twice in February and potentially a third time in the conference tournament. The Zags have won the past seven regular-season titles and won all but one of the games during their winning streak by double digits.

"Gonzaga has been so good for the last few years," Judkins said. "It's not good to have them go through the league undefeated for two years in a row. Kelly is one of the first ones to pull for competitiveness. He feels like that if it's a stronger conference you get more recognition and that can really help us."

Gonzaga has been garnering national attention for years. The Zags became one of the stories of last season's NCAA tournament advancing to the regional final in Spokane before falling to Stanford. However, Graves knows that for his team to grow, the league will have to get better. He remembers when his team was 28-3 in 2005 and snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee when they were upset in the conference tournament. Having a better all-around conference can keep that from happening again.

"We need to rise together," Graves said. "We talked in our coaches meetings about all of us getting better. Two of the last three years in conference meetings we brought in someone from the RPI and someone from the women's basketball committee. We are learning how to schedule and who to schedule. Regardless of where you're at in league you should schedule accordingly. Teams are winning more in the non-conference and that helps overall."

The change in scheduling and addition of BYU has helped the WCC raise its conference RPI to ninth from 15th last season.

"We're hoping to make this at least a two-team NCAA bid conference," Judkins said.

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