Lincoln, Neb. • After dancing longer than most thought they would, the BYU Cougars finally stepped off the stage on Saturday night.
But if the Cougars have their way, they’ll be back — and hopefully it won’t take 12 years to get there again.
BYU (28-7) wrapped up a strong season with a Sweet 16 berth, only the second in the program’s history. It took top-ranked UConn to finally put down the run that took college basketball by surprise. But next year, if the Cougars are back in the Big Dance, coach Jeff Judkins doesn’t want anyone to blink their eyes.
“This is the start of what we want to be at BYU,” he said. “We want to be the team that knocks on the door and has the opportunity to show what we can do. Not just in our conference, but across the country.”
The first time Judkins reached the third round with BYU, in 2002, he acknowledged he took it for granted that the program could get there year after year. It’s taken him this long to get back, but the Cougars may be in good shape to repeat the feat sooner rather than later.
There’s a foundation of talent: Inside scorer and defender Morgan Bailey is a junior. Slasher and scorer Lexi Eaton is a sophomore. Both point guards return. BYU has a combined 11 sophomores and freshmen on the roster who all got a little taste of the tournament.
Making a postseason run is a process that is learned, an experience of its own. The Cougars bring back players who now know that process, and just how difficult it is.
“It just changes our whole outlook on it to know that we beat these quality teams and big teams, and that we hung with UConn,” Eaton said. “We’re motivated more than ever. We’re going to start working hard again.”
The two graduations BYU does have will be just about impossible to fully replace. Senior center Jen Hamson was a matchup nightmare with her 6-foot-7 length on defense. Losing the nation’s leading shot-blocker will likely result in some schematic shifts for the Cougars, and losing one of the team’s top perimeter defenders and shooters in Kim Beeston won’t be easy either.
But it’s something BYU can’t change or choose. The Cougars will adjust, as they did this March. They’ll work on the weaknesses they saw against the Huskies. They’ll come into the next season with the bar raised just a few notches higher.
The standard has been reset: BYU doesn’t just want to go to the tournament every year, it wants to win games once it gets there.
“I think we’re just really proud of what this team accomplished this season,” Bailey said. “I think we all learned and grew. Even the kids on the bench grew from this experience. We know what it takes to be the best.”