ESPN analysts, along with spectators, were surprised when the BYU women’s basketball team gave the reigning national champions University of Connecticut a scare in the NCAA Tournament Saturday.
The only ones who didn’t seem shocked were the stoic BYU players, who have been surprising people and shutting down critics all year long. After a Cinderella tournament run, BYU fell to Connecticut 70-51.
“I’m really proud of my team,” said BYU head coach Jeff Judkins. “I thought we really came out tonight with a lot of heart and energy. We played some of our best basketball. We just didn’t play that sharp in the second half. I’m really proud of this team and its effort.”
To understand the significance of this game, those unfamiliar with women’s basketball should take a look at the UConn dynasty. This season, the team has been a dominant force, posting a 36-0 record and beating opponents by an average of 35 points. Since head coach Geno Auriemma took over in 1985, the program has seen 14 Final Four appearances and earned eight national championship trophies. Some of the best women’s basketball players in the world have played for UConn under Auriemma, who also coaches the USA women’s basketball Olympic team.
However, none of this scared the Cougars. They came out firing on all cylinders at the Pinnacle Bank arena in Lincoln, Neb., leading the Huskies by as many as six points in the first half, the biggest lead any team has taken over UConn this season.
BYU was hot from beyond the arc, draining 5–10 treys in the first 20 minutes of play, but UConn closed the gap to take the lead 30-29 going into the break.
The Cougars’ valiant effort lost steam in the second half, as they shot 31 percent from the field compared to the Huskies’ 43 percent. UConn’s physical style of play allowed them to dominate the paint, scoring 36 to BYU’s 12, as the No. 1 Huskies pulled away for the victory.
In her last game as a Cougar, senior Kim Beeston led BYU with 16 points on 4-8 3-point shooting. Junior Morgan Bailey was again a force for the Cougars as she recorded 14 points, including two key 3-pointers, and seven rebounds. Two-sport star Jennifer Hamson played her final game for BYU in a basketball uniform, finishing with nine points and 13 rebounds.
The Cougars’ impressive NCAA tournament run showed the country they can hang with the best.
After a sound upset of fifth-seeded North Carolina State 72-57 in the first round, BYU pulled off a nail-biter win to upset No. 4 Nebraska 80-76 and clinch a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. With the loss to Connecticut, the Cougars finish the 2013–2014 season with a 28-7 record — the winningest season the program has ever seen.
“It’s been really special for us, and we’re really excited for the exposure to get BYU’s name out there and just to really show what we’re all about and what BYU’s all about,” said sophomore guard Lexi Eaton about the team’s improbable run.
Throughout the season, Judkins’ squad continued to grow, break records and exceed expectations. The year was full of ups and downs, such as losing to Utah in double overtime in December, and highs like beating Gonzaga (then ranked No. 15 in the nation) in front of a rowdy home crowd in the Marriott Center.
Picked to finish fourth in the WCC, the Cougars finished second behind Gonzaga. However, the Cougars made it farther in the NCAA tournament than the 6th-seeded Bulldogs, who lost in the first round.
On March 17, the selection committee awarded BYU with a 12-seed into the tournament.
“I thought we’d be higher, but it really doesn’t make a difference when you look at the whole thing,” Judkins said. “I’ve been really fortunate in my coaching career to go into a lot of tournaments; it’s who you match up with and what style of basketball they play.”
BYU then went on to become just the third 12-seed ever to make the women’s Sweet Sixteen.
Several players achieved career milestones and made waves. The 6-foot-7-inch Hamson had a special season. In December, she entered the 1,000-point club and finished her career with 1,437 points. Hamson’s 340 career blocks is second all-time — her mother, Tresa Spaulding Hamson, still holds that record. Hamson led the nation in blocked shots, made the WCC All-Academic team and was the first player to be named the West Coast Conference’s Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year.
Fellow senior Kim Beeston tied the school record for 3-pointers in a single game, hitting nine against LMU in February. Beeston’s 250 career 3-pointers were the fourth most in BYU history. Beeston was selected as an all-WCC honorable mention and also made the WCC All-Academic team.
Sophomore Lexi Eaton returned from an ACL injury that sidelined her last year to help lead the Cougars with nearly 17 points per game and was named to the All-WCC first team. Junior Morgan Bailey made a big impact for BYU this year and was named as an honorable mention by the WCC.
“This has definitely been one of my favorite teams I’ve been on; everyone is so close, and we’re all really great friends,” said Beeston, who shares co-captain duties with Hamson. “So leading them has been easy, and it’s been so fun — I have just loved this year.”
This team, with all its combinations of offensive and defensive threats, may have been a once-in-a-career team for Judkins. But with players like Bailey and Eaton returning next year, and the possible influx of recruits attracted by BYU’s recent tournament success, the sky is the limit for these Cougars.