Both BYU and Arizona had a lot to prove, but only one team could advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Women’s Tournament — and it was the Wildcats.
The 11th-seeded Cougars took third-seeded Arizona down to the wire, but were unable to close out the game, dropping the Round of 32 matchup, 52-46.
BYU’s postseason fate was put in jeopardy due to a loss to San Francisco in the regular-season finale. Then, the Cougars were unable to punch their ticket to the NCAA tourney when they lost to Gonzaga on a buzzer-beater in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game.
When the Cougars heard their name called in the Selection Show and found out they were among the last four teams to move onto the bracket, they wanted to prove how much they belonged.
“Lots of people overlooked us,” sophomore Shaylee Gonzales said. “Lots of people thought that we didn’t deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, but I hope that these couple games really proved to everyone what kind of team we really are. People thought we were the underdogs and we showed lots and lots of fight today. [I’m] super proud of my team.”
The Wildcats will face second-seeded Texas A&M in Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup.
“BYU is a really good team,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “They play hard, they don’t give up, they’re coached really well, they’re relentless. Every time they answered back with a big 3 or a big play. Really, really good team, so all the respect for them. But I’m just really proud of the way my team kind of beared down and found a way to make big plays at the end.”
After a big game on Monday, Paisley Harding was quiet against Arizona. The senior took a hard fall, hitting her head on the floor, early in the game, which may have been part of the reason. Harding played just 22 minutes and scored two points.
Following the heartbreaking loss, BYU coach Jeff Judkins said Arizona did a good job on his senior guard, but that Harding had also injured her hand on that fall, landing on it.
“But I think she showed a lot of heart,” Judkins said. “And what team basketball is all about is, when you’re not feeling your best, you go out there and give 100% and do what you got to do for the team. And that’s what she is.”
Luckily for the Cougars, Gonzales and Tegan Graham stepped up in Harding’s absence. Gonzales scored a team-high 16 points and Graham was the only other Cougar to score in double-digits, adding 13 points. Graham also made three key 3-pointers to help her team.
With Wednesday’s performance, Gonzales hit the 1,000-point milestone. In two seasons, Gonzales has 1,005 career points.
In a game that featured 12 lead changes and nine ties, Judkins was proud of how his team was able to keep fighting throughout.
“The team showed a lot of heart tonight,” Judkins said. “Getting down, getting knocked around and not giving up.”
BYU almost perfectly mirrored Arizona in certain stats (field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, rebounds and blocks), but fell drastically behind in others. The Cougars lost the turnover margin by six and were outscored 20-6 in points off turnovers.
Most importantly, Arizona’s defense stepped up when it needed to.
Once the Cougars found themselves with a four-point lead with five minutes left in the game, the Wildcats closed out the contest on a 13-3 run. Two-time All-American Aari McDonald sealed the deal with a steal and breakaway layup.
“To be able to get this far and be able to knock on the door and come close to going to the Sweet Sixteen was really great for this team,” Judkins said.