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Originally published Monday, March 11, 2013 at 5:10 PM

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Taelor Karr, Haiden Palmer lead Gonzaga women back to NCAA tournament

Gonzaga defeated San Diego 62-50 Monday in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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LAS VEGAS — The Gonzaga-San Diego women's basketball final in the West Coast Conference tournament was hardly the kind of soft landing that Taelor Karr needed. The WCC's Player of the Year bruised her lower back in the Zags' semifinal win and was a question mark for the deciding game.

"I was with my trainer 24-7; it was a rough 48 hours," said Karr. "(But) I didn't want to let my team down in the championship game."

She didn't, starting, playing 35 minutes and pitching in 14 points and six assists as the Zags barged into their fifth-straight NCAA tournament with a 62-50 victory Monday.

Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves called it "one of the most hard-fought, physical games we've had to play all season long."

Karr excelled anyway, as did backcourt mate Haiden Palmer, who scored a game-high 18 points and took tournament MVP honors.

For Graves, taking a couple of transfers turned out to be a good move. Karr began her career at Kansas State, Palmer at Oregon State.

"We're as mentally and physically tough as any team I've coached," Graves said. "To come in here with some pressure and end up with 17 wins (two in the tournament after a 15-1 conference season), that's never been done in the West Coast Conference."

Now it's some unsuspecting NCAA entrant's misfortune to draw Spokane as a destination for first- and second-round games. Because of its drawing power, Gonzaga will host for the third straight year and automatically play at home, where they've prospered recently in the postseason.

Gonzaga's 27th victory came after it trailed much of the first half. But a drive by Karr and a three-pointer from the right wing staked the Zags to a 29-25 halftime lead.

Gonzaga kept the heat on after the break, as baskets by Jazmine Redmon, Palmer and Sunny Greinacher completed an 18-2 run and made it 35-25.

San Diego crept back and was within 46-42 when Redmon's driving layup was blocked. Gonzaga retrieved the ball and got it to Karr on the right wing, and she drained a three-pointer with the shot clock under five seconds.

"Taelor and Haiden really came to play," said Cindy Fisher, San Diego coach. "Taelor hit some really big shots that broke our back."

Added Graves: "When (Karr) toughed it up and said, 'Hey, I'm going to play,' I think that lifted the team's spirits. A lot of kids would have sat this one out, and she didn't want to. She wanted to finish what she started."

Palmer was joined on the all-tournament team by Karr and Zags redshirt-freshman center Shelby Cheslek of Pullman, plus San Diego's Amy Kame and Loyola Marymount's Alex Cowling.

Graves was clearly pleased at the distance his team had come after losing three frontcourt starters from a Sweet 16 squad a year ago.

"Early in the year, we had some excuses," he said. "People said, 'Well, you're young, you're so inexperienced.' I didn't allow that to happen. I demanded perfection every day in practice. I didn't want them to have a crutch."

Gonzaga held its two tournament opponents to a combined 93 points. San Diego, a team that had attempted only 208 three-point shots, went 0 for 5 behind the arc.

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