The No. 20 BYU women’s basketball team had a goal at the beginning of the season to reach the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Four of the team’s seniors came back this year partly to help the Cougars get there.
But Maddy Siegrist and the Villanova Wildcats had other plans.
The Cougars lost 61-57 to the Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. The loss ends the season for the Cougars, who earned a No. 6 seed in the tournament.
“This season ended up being shorter than we wanted it to be,” BYU senior Sara Hamson said. “But at the end of the day, we made memories that we are going to keep forever, and friends who we are going to just live with forever.”
BYU finished the season with a 26-4 record. The sixth seed in the tournament was the highest in program history. The team was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for most of the season, and reached as high as No. 15, another program high.
Hamson, Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham and Maria Albiero will all now move on from the Cougars after returning due to having an extra year of eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This season has meant the world to me,” Harding said. “This has been such a fun season. On top of that, this program is amazing. ... These girls are something special. I don’t think you can find another team in this nation that’s as close, tight-knit and loving as mine is.”
Now coach Jeff Judkins, his staff and BYU’s returning players will take some time off before reassessing how the Cougars can become perennial NCAA Tournament participants.
“I think we’ve set a good tone for what is expected and what we wanted to achieve, and I think that’s going to help these guys drive through it all summer,” Judkins said, adding that he’ll also focus on improvements he can make going forward.
Harding led BYU with 21 points against Villanova, which had the No. 11 seed. Graham added 11 points and eight rebounds, while sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales had eight points, eight assists and six rebounds. Sophomore forward Lauren Gustin had eight points and 13 rebounds.
The Cougars opened the game 13-2, but started the turning the ball over at a high rate. The Wildcats took advantage of that and caught all the way up. The game was close from there.
“We just made some careless turnovers,” Harding said. “I think that’s pretty much us just beating ourselves right there in that little stretch in the first quarter.”
BYU committed 16 turnovers and Villanova scored 14 points off them.
Siegrist, the NCAA’s second-leading scorer and reigning Big East Player of the Year, struggled in the first half but got going afterward. She scored 19 points in the second half and ended with 25 points and seven rebounds.
“She turned it up a couple of notches and really went off,” Hamson said of Siegrist.
BYU shot just 38.9% from the field against the Wildcats, marking the third consecutive game in a tournament setting that it shot under 40%. Judkins said what has affected the Cougars in the last three games is the different balls used at the WCC and NCAA tournaments.
“I don’t know if other teams practice with those balls all year,” Judkins said. “I guarantee you we will next year. We will practice with those basketballs all year because there is a different feel. One thing I can do is shoot, and I guarantee you I’d have a hard time shooting.”
Judkins also credited Villanova’s defense, saying it ran the Cougars off the 3-point line and caused some rushed shots.
“We have to shoot the ball good,” Judkins said. “We did the whole year. These last three games were the worst we shot all year. You can’t do that when you get into tournaments.”