Las Vegas • BYU’s men’s basketball team isn’t the only team from Provo clearly on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into a conference tournament this weekend.
That’s also the case with the BYU’s women’s team, which opens West Coast Conference tournament play on Friday afternoon in a quarterfinal game against Pepperdine. The Waves advanced Thursday with an 80-74 win over Pepperdine while the Cougars were arriving in Las Vegas.
The Cougars (24-5) have won eight straight games and finished in second in the regular-season race behind Gonzaga. They swept Pepperdine in the regular season.
Coach Jeff Judkins has his team peaking at just the right time, with four-straight double-digit wins, two of them on the road.
“I think we are playing some of our best basketball right now,” Judkins said. “We are playing with a lot of confidence. A lot of players have stepped up and our playing really well for us. We are finally getting all healthy. I think it is working out, where we are.”
Star guard Lexi Eaton, the second-leading scorer on the team with a 17.0 average, said every player has contributed to the late-season success.
“I think each player has found ways to be more consistent, and with everybody being more consistent, that has just built our confidence,” Eaton said. “We just have so many weapons, and when all of them are working efficiently, we are pretty hard to guard.”
Of course, the cornerstone has been 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson, the WCC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Hamson leads BYU in scoring (18.5), rebounding (11.4) and blocked shots (4.2) and also leads the nation in blocked shots.
“I think we have started to figure out how to play well together, and being aggressive has really helped us,” Hamson said.
Judkins said focusing on basketball only this season — after she played volleyball and basketball her first three years at BYU — has done wonders for Hamson’s game. She’s developed into one of the top post players in the country, he said.
“This is probably one of my most balanced teams that I have had in a long, long time, both offensively and defensively,” Judkins said. “I can go big and I can go small. It is a real positive.”
If the Cougars win Friday, they won’t play again until Monday in the semifinals. The tournament championship game is Tuesday at 1 p.m. and will be televised by ESPNU.
The Cougars are an 11 seed in the latest version of women’s bracketology, according to ESPN. Judkins said Gonzaga is in regardless of how it does at the conference tournament, but BYU might have to get to the championship game and hope the Zags are its opponent to be assured a berth in the big dance.
“We’ve had a great year, but a lot depends on who gets beat in tournaments and all those things,” he said. “I think if we get to the finals [we are in]. The conference deserves two teams. We have been good all season, our preseason schedules [were good], and all of us have played tough games to build our RPI up.”
The WCC has the eighth-best RPI in the country and is close to the sixth- and seventh-best leagues, Judkins said.
“If we can get two more wins, that really helps our resume.’ Our worst loss right now is the Utah loss,” Judkins said. “ … As a team, though, we can’t worry about it. We just have to go win the tournament.”
BYU vs. Pepperdine
P At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Tipoff • 3 p.m. MST
TV • BYUtv
Radio • None
Records • BYU 24-5, Pepperdine 6-24
Series History • BYU leads 7-2
Last Meeting • BYU 89, Pepperdine 75
About the Waves • Junior guard Ea Shoushtari scored 30 points in their 70-64 win over Santa Clara on Thursday afternoon in a first-round game. … Bria Richardson leads them in scoring with a 16.9 average. Keitra Wallace follows with 12.3 ppg. and Shoushtari contributes 11.4 points and pulls down a game-best 6.7 rebounds per game.
About the Cougars • They are on an eight-game winning streak. … Jennifer Hamson was named WCC Player of the Year and WCC Defender of the Year after leading the Cougars in scoring (18.5 ppg), rebounding (11.4 rpg) and blocked shots (4.2 bpg) in the regular season. She leads the nation in blocked shots, is 13th in rebounding and 14th in double-doubles.