Provo • As the BYU women's basketball team prepares for the home stretch of its West Coast Conference schedule, a victory Thursday night against visiting Saint Mary's was most important.
The Cougars, who stumbled against a mediocre San Francisco team the week before, now have little wiggle room if they want to win a championship.
So, BYU's 66-58 victory in the Marriott Center, while important, merely keeps it within striking distance of Gonzaga and the Gaels.
"We really needed it," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "It wasn't a pretty game, but I didn't think it would be. They're physical, big time. It was nice to see our kids step up tonight."
In the end, it was the pretty play of BYU guard Haley Steed which proved to be the difference. A pair of Steed 3-point baskets fueled a Cougar rush at the start of the second half that turned a deficit into a lead.
Steed really began the run with a trey to end the half which trimmed a six-point Gaels advantage to three. Saint Mary's (14-6, 6-2 WCC) outplayed BYU (14-6, 5-2) in the first half, but had really nothing to show for its effort.
"It was the last punch before halftime," said Steed, who finished with 14 points and nine assists.
It sparked a 13-0 run that extended into the second half.
"It was big," echoed Judkins. "What do you say about [Steed]? The kid's tough. It wasn't one of Haley's better nights, but nights that aren't her best are better than most."
Early on, the Gaels were hitting from all areas of the court, including 4 of 8 from the 3-point line. A defensive adjustment put a halt to Saint Mary's perimeter attack, while the inside play of Keilani Unga and Morgan Bailey slowed down the physical Gaels.
"Juddy told us they were going to be bruisers," Unga said.
BYU's in-game adjustments were important. It helped Unga and Bailey combine for 22 points and nine rebounds. Unga also held Danielle Mauldin below her 14.6 scoring average.
Yet, the most important aspect of the Cougars' victory was a collective deep breath. The first half was frantic, with plenty of missed opportunities on both ends of the court.
It was only when BYU found its rhythm that the game swung its way. Steed had four turnovers at the half, but none in the second half. Instead, she collected five steals.
"The first half was a little frantic," Steed said. "We came out the second half and really executed well."
BYU 66, Saint Mary's 58
O BYU extends a 13-0 run from the first half into the second and never trails again.
• Haley Steed paces BYU with 14 points, nine assists, five steals and five rebounds.
• Jackie Nared leads Saint Mary's with 18 points and 11 rebounds.