Las Vegas • Towering BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins apologized for being late to the postgame news conference after the Cougars routed Gonzaga 82-68 to win their third West Coast Conference tournament championship in eight years in the league Tuesday afternoon.
“We like to celebrate at BYU,” Judkins said.
The victory — and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it — is a much-needed shot in the arm for a fanbase that watched in agony Saturday night when the men’s team fell behind San Diego by 44 points before losing 80-57 in a quarterfinal game at Orleans Arena.
BYU’s women, with Judkins at the helm the past 18 seasons, are flourishing in the WCC like many fans believed the men would do when the Cougars joined the league in 2011-12, but haven’t.
The BYU women (25-6) will learn their NCAA Tournament seeding and destination on Monday, having last played in the Big Dance in 2015. After winning the WCC regular-season title and going 26-5 before losing 70-68 to San Francisco in the WCC championship game that year, BYU got a No. 7 seed and was sent to Austin, Texas, for a first-round game. It was upset 78-69 by No. 10 seed Missouri.
After Tuesday’s big win, BYU jumped one spot to the No. 8 seed in ESPN’s bracketology projections, which were updated Wednesday. Gonzaga (28-4) remained a No. 5 seed, its hopes of hosting first- and second-round games likely dashed.
Women’s basketball expert Charlie Creme of ESPN predicts BYU will be sent to South Bend, Ind., to face No. 9 seed Michigan in a first-round game in the Chicago Regional, with the winner likely facing No. 1 seed Notre Dame on its home floor.
ESPN’s other projected No. 1 seeds are Connecticut, Baylor and Mississippi State; Of those, Baylor is in the regional (Greensboro) that does not feed into Sunday games, so Waco, Texas, is another possible destination for BYU, which does not play or practice on Sundays for religious reasons.
Should BYU jump to a No. 7 seed, the Cougars would look at traveling to the homes of the probable No. 2 seeds in non-Sunday playing regionals — Stanford or Iowa.
BYU’s future looks bright, because the Cougars’ three-headed monster on the guard line — junior Brenna Chase, sophomore Paisley Johnson and freshman Shaylee Gonzales — returns next season, as does 6-7 sophomore Sara Hamson, 6-3 sophomore Shalae Salmon and 6-1 freshman Babalu Ugwu, the latter two from New Zealand and Brazil.
The guards combined to score 64 points in the third win over the No. 12-ranked Zags this season.
BYU’s only seniors are 6-foot-2 forward Jasmine Moody and 5-10 softball star-turned basketball defensive specialist Caitlyn Alldredge.
BYU WOMEN’S BASKETBALL SEASON LEADERS
Scoring: Shaylee Gonzales (16.3 ppg.)
Rebounding: Sara Hamson (5.8 rpg.)
Assists: Shaylee Gonzales (4.3 apg.)
3-pointers: Brenna Chase (84)
“We are all very confident players, especially the guard line,” Chase said. “We know that at any given time, any one of us can score. All three of us did [Tuesday]. I had the hot hand from the three. But Paisley and Shaylee got to the basket every time that they wanted to. And so I think we just really feed off that, and each other, and then on the pick and roll they have to help on Sara and Jasmine and Shalae, and that’s where we get open shots.”
The seniors will be missed, but the Cougars’ fun-filled season isn’t over. Now they’re going dancing.
“We’re going to the NCAA’s,” the excitable Johnson screamed in delight to ESPNU cameras moments after she was awarded the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
It’s quite the turnaround for a program that went 16-14 last year and didn’t even make the WNIT, then dropped three straight games to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s from Jan. 31 to Feb. 7 before reeling off eight straight wins.
“We lost those three games, and I pulled the guards together and I told them, ‘Look, the pressure is on. The team counts on you. You guys can’t show up and not have a good game. You have to play your game. Scoring is not everything, but you gotta play your game for this team to win,’” Judkins said.