BYU women’s basketball advances to WCC Tournament championship game

The Cougars beat the Portland Pilots 59-52 on Monday

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Cougars guard Paisley Harding (13) looks for a shot, as Pepperdine Waves guard Malia Bambrick (1) defends, in women's basketball action between the BYU Cougars and the Pepperdine Waves, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Las Vegas • The BYU women’s basketball team doesn’t care who it faces in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game.

“Doesn’t matter,” senior guard Tegan Graham said. “I don’t have a preference.”

“Same,” sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales followed.

The Cougars have been waiting all season for this moment. The moment when they could have the opportunity to play for the WCC Tournament title that eluded them in last season’s championship game. Four seniors who could have graduated returned so they could have another crack at it.

And on the same day that BYU reached No. 15 in the Associated Press women’s basketball poll — the highest position in school history — the Cougars gave themselves that chance.

No. 15 BYU advanced to the championship game with a close 59-52 win over the Portland Pilots on Monday at Orleans Arena. The Cougars are set to play Gonzaga in the title game Tuesday at 2 p.m.

A week ago, the NCAA selection committee for women’s basketball released its final rankings of the top 16 teams in the country. BYU was not on it. Coach Judkins believes if the Cougars win Tuesday, they should be there and get a chance to host a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

Graham said she doesn’t understand why the Cougars don’t get more recognition nationally, and the team has had a chip on its shoulder all season as a result.

“There’s a little bit of disrespect there, I think,” Graham said. “But I think our team is really good at not focusing on rankings and things like that because there’s nothing we can do to control that. All we can do is win basketball games and go from there.”

BYU won a doozy of a game Monday.

The Cougars wanted to face the Pilots. They wanted to avenge their only conference loss, which Portland handed them. They not only got what they wanted, they got about as much as they could handle and then some.

But in the last four minutes of the game, they showed that no ifs, ands or buts, these Cougars have guts.

“Probably just composure and being super calm with it,” Gonzales said when asked what it took to win. “I feel like we did a great job of doing that and making the extra pass and just trusting each other.”

Gonzales scored 20 points and added six rebounds and two assists for the Cougars, who improved to 26-2 on the season. Senior guard Paisley Harding scored 14 points, while Graham had 11 points, 11 rebounds six assists and two blocks.

BYU trailed 46-45 with 5:31 remaining in the game when Gonzales made a driving layup just inside the four-minute mark. That basket gave the Cougars the lead for good, but it was really secured when senior Maria Albiero made a wing 3-pointer to put BYU up 52-46 with 2:19 left.

Judkins said watching Albiero make that 3-pointer reminded him of all the times he has witnessed her practice shooting in the facility adjacent to the Marriott Center in Provo.

“When the biggest moment came, she was ready, and she took it,” Judkins said. “When she hit it, I just knew, at least in my heart, I just said, ‘All that hard work paid off for it.’”

Graham said the Cougars are used to being the underdogs from a perception standpoint. They will be favored in Tuesday’s title game, but are still expecting to get Gonzaga’s. So they won’t be letting go of that idea anytime soon.

“In that regard, it’s kind of healthy to have a little bit of the underdog mindset,” Graham said.

Gonzaga beat San Francisco to advance in to the tournament championship game. It’ll be the fifth time the two programs will meet for a chance to claim the WCC Tournament title.

“We’re excited to face them again,” Gonzaga guard Kaylynne Truong said. “I know we’ll be ready this time around.”

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