BYU women’s basketball seniors are not shying away from their lofty NCAA Tournament goal

The Cougars start their NCAA Tournament run Saturday against Villanova

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Cougars center Sara Hamson (22) and BYU Cougars guard Tegan Graham (10) laugh as Maria Albiero (5) strikes a pose as BYU celebrates their win over the Waves, in women's basketball action between the BYU Cougars and the Pepperdine Waves, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Judkins scored his 450th win tonight.

After every practice, the No. 20 BYU women’s basketball team gathers in a circle before everyone goes their separate ways for the day. Coach Jeff Judkins debriefs his players about the next opponent. Depending on the day, someone follows that with their own comments. There’s usually some laughter.

Then everyone outstretches an arm and puts their hand on top of a teammate’s. And together, they say the words, “Final Four.”

That goal — reaching the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament — was set way back at the beginning of the 2021-22 season. And it’s an appropriate one given that four Cougars seniors returned for one more year with hopes that their last college basketball hurrah includes a deep run in the Big Dance.

“We came back because we didn’t want to end on the losses that we did and because we wanted to see how far we can go because we are a really good team,” senior Sara Hamson said.

Hamson, Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham and Maria Albiero all returned this season as a result of the NCAA giving athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be their final run together.

Harding called the opportunity to play at all this season a “blessing,” and wants to soak up every moment of this NCAA Tournament run.

“I have however many games we win in the NCAA Tournament left of my college career,” Harding said. “So I’m going to go and live in the moment and be a part of that and be with my teammates.”

But winning wasn’t the sole reason those four seniors decided to return. Hamson said there was a sense of not wanting to let down their other teammates by leaving. And additionally, there may have been a sentiment of wanting to delay the inevitable.

“College basketball is all we’ve known for the past four — now five — years and it’s comfortable and we enjoy it and we don’t want it to end,” Hamson said. “Growth and change is important and it’s good, but sometimes it’s nice to put it off a little bit longer.”

Coming back wasn’t a decision made formally. The four seniors did not come together in a room and talk about who would return and who wouldn’t, Hamson said. It just happened organically.

The younger Cougars have waxed poetic about the seniors and their impact all season. Sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales said a big reason why the team is so good is the leadership those four provide and the chemistry they foster.

And while Judkins said the reasoning behind the seniors returning is more understood than spoken aloud, it seems to be a topic of conversation among the players.

“That’s kind of like a daily thing,” freshman guard Nani Falatea said. “We’re always talking about it.”

The Cougars earned the No. 6 seed in the tournament and will face the 11-seed Villanova Wildcats on Saturday at 11 a.m. The Wildcats play in the Big East Conference and finished the regular season with a 23-8 overall record.

The Cougars left for Ann Arbor, Mich., Thursday morning and were sent off by fans who gathered at the Marriott Center ticket office and held balloons and waved BYU flags.

Judkins didn’t as far as saying it’s Final Four or bust for the Cougars. The post-practice ritual, he said, is more akin to setting a lofty goal with designs on reaching it.

“People that set hard goals have a higher chance, I think, of completing them and doing it,” Judkins said. “And I think that’s what this team wanted to do.”

It remains to be seen how far BYU will get in the NCAA Tournament. But every player, coach and manager would say that March is what college athletes play for. Graham certainly does.

“Now the real fun starts,” Graham said.

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