Los Angeles • Shortly after the postgame news conference, Jeff Judkins switched hats. The BYU coach turned off the competitiveness and turned on the charm.
He went out to talk to the Nebraska players, still red-eyed and mourning the end or their season. He shook hands with Cornhusker fans, talking to them about the close finish of the 80-76 NCAA Tournament game that propelled the Cougars into the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 years.
“Well we’ll be looking for you next weekend,” he said. “We need you to cheer for us.”
BYU has been the surprise of the tournament, only the third 12 seed to ever make it to the third round in the Big Dance. With an overpowering win over NC State and a lightning quick start and tight victory over Nebraska, the Cougars have made the case that the committee may have dropped the WCC runner-up a little bit too low in seeding.
But next, the Cougars head to Lincoln, Neb., the home gym of their vanquished foes. And they’ll need as much support as they can get: Their opponent is the No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Connecticut, which beat Saint Joseph’s 91-52 on Tuesday.
Oddly enough, Judkins has been in a similar position before. In his first run to the Sweet 16, the Cougars beat Iowa State before falling to Tennessee, which went on to the Final Four.
Perhaps it was the experience that got him busy: He was lobbying for Cornhusker support not long after his team had just won its second round game. But Judkins also said his team has been nothing if not a confident bunch in its last two victories, ringing up double-digit leads over a 5 seed and a 4 seed.
“I know we’ll fight, and I know these guys know they can beat anybody,” he said. “They play the way they’re supposed to play; they can beat anybody. That’s what we’re excited about.”
BYU seemed to fluster both the Wolfpack and the Huskers with their unusual matchups. Particularly with 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson in the middle, the Cougars can create a dead zone in the paint, taking away the easiest baskets lest an opponent risk their shot getting swatted.
This bears out in statistics: NC State shot only 28.2 percent inside the arc. Nebraska shot a better 42.2 percent, but took a whole half to get its offense going.
But what has elevated BYU to a Cinderella of the postseason has been the players around Hamson. Lexi Eaton has been a consistent slashing and shooting threat, and Morgan Bailey has been the complementary physical scorer and defender to Hamson’s more finesse game. Even unheralded role players such as Kylie Maeda and Xojian Harry have stepped into the spotlight, hitting shots to keep the Cougars on a roll.
That feel for the big moment is what BYU hopes can carry it next week further than the program has ever been. To them, it doesn’t matter who they face.
“We’re just excited to play against them and see what we can bring to the table,” Hamson said.