The BYU women's basketball team poses in front of the NCAA logo in San Antonio. The Cougars earned an 11 seed and are preparing to take on Rutgers in the first round. (BYU Women's Basketball)

BYU women’s basketball earns 11 seed in historic NCAA Tournament

The BYU women’s basketball team celebrated as the team’s name appeared during the NCAA Tournament selection show on March 15 for an at-large bid to the Big Dance in San Antonio, Texas.

The Cougars are an 11 seed and will play their first game on Monday, March 22 at 10 a.m. MDT on ESPNU against Rutgers.

“We’re really excited,” BYU head coach Jeff Judkins said. “I think we deserve this. We played a good schedule and beat people in front of us. Rutgers is a really good team and is really well-coached. They have one of the most respected and legendary coaches (in C. Vivian Stringer). So it’ll be a great opportunity for us.”

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights reached the Final Four twice and were the national runner-ups in 2007.

They have an overall record of 14-4 this season, going 10-3 in Big Ten play to finish third in the regular-season conference standings. They were eliminated in the Big Ten quarterfinals by Iowa.

Most of the Cougars were huddled around the TV in the Marriott Center Annex lounge while others were in class when they found out they were “going dancing.”

The Cougars’ most recent trip to the tournament was in 2019, when 7-seed BYU defeated 10-seed Auburn in the first round before falling to 2-seed Stanford in the second.

“This is the goal at the start of the year,” Judkins said. “You talk about it and we’ve been here before. We are not just excited to get in, we want to be able to advance and have a chance to make the Sweet 16, but we got to take care of Rutgers first.”

This is BYU’s 14th time going to March Madness and fourth time being an 11 seed. Usually the NCAA separates the tournament regions into North, East, South and West, but this year the regions are named after landmarks and famous areas of the city of San Antonio: Alamo, Mercado, Hemisfair and River Walk. BYU is playing the Mercado region.

Judkins said he was glad the selection committee looked at the “whole picture” of his team and what they have accomplished. “This team is one of the most mature teams I have had, handling what’s been given out to them. I think it starts out with good leadership and players that really love each other.”

Sophomore Shaylee Gonzales said their loss to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament was very frustrating and disappointing but that the team told themselves that they were going to make it. After the game, Tegan Graham texted the team and told them to have that strong mindset.

BYU could potentially see Gonzaga again in the NCAA Tournament as they are in the same region.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to make it. We were 50/50,” Gonzales said. “When we saw BYU on the TV we all went crazy. I can’t believe it. I feel so much joy and happiness and knew that my team deserved it and I am just super excited to get there and show everyone what we are made of.”

Gonzales had a goal when she first came to BYU as a freshman of making it to the NCAA Tournament in each of her four years. She is currently on track, with NCAA bids in both seasons she has played in.

“We are going dancing,” Gonzales said. “I feel so blessed.”

The NCAA has made historic changes to accommodate all 64 teams and about 2,000 participants in 63 games in six different locations.

BYU left on a private plane on March 17 and Judkins said they were going to be stuck in their rooms due to protocol.  

NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman has been working on this tournament since November with both the national committee and local organizers in Texas.

“For us to have the opportunity to have our championship this year, to do it in this historic manner, it’s hard to put into words how meaningful it is,” Holzman said. “It is emotional because we want to provide this championship opportunity to these student-athletes that have earned it after all the sacrifices and in everything they have been through this last year and reaching back into last season.”

She said they are committed to executing it in a safe way to crown the national champions on April 4.

The committee moved forward with holding the entire tournament in just one location, which has never been done before.

They had to make changes to how the tournament would be run, and there have been a lot of challenges to make the environment as welcoming as possible for these teams.

Each team needed to have seven consecutive days of negative test results before traveling to San Antonio, and the teams were placed in quarantine in their hotel rooms along with two days of COVID-19 testing when they arrived, according to Holzman.

The first day of practice for everyone was Thursday, March 18 and Judkins said he hopes to practice daily until Saturday to prepare for Monday.

The NCAA bought out seven hotels in the area so they could control the environment and be sole occupants. The hotels are not open to the public.  

“(Each hotel) has 22 teams and they all have their own floors,” Holzman said. “But the moments of the elevators has to be timed in order for them to, as a team, move down the elevators to walk in the secure corridor outside to the convention center for their testing.”

She said that even though they never had to deal with these kind of details before, they have been successful so far.

All players and coaches are being provided small devices from Kinexon to wear during practices and competition, the only times they will be unmasked. These devices produce data and track how close someone is to them.

They can be clipped on the jersey or waistband and if there is a positive test near them, the device can pinpoint the source.

“When I said it is historic and its never been done before, that also relates to what it takes financially to operationalize this,” Holzman said. It is estimated that $27 million will be pumped into the local economy.

The inspiration for the tournament set-up came from the early ’90s when the San Antonio Spurs played in the Alamodome. It’s a two court set up, though there will never be two games going on at once, and for the final games they will dismantle it into one court.

All NCAA games will be broadcast nationally for the first time ever, including on ABC. Holzman said that means that viewership is increasing.

“In a time of crisis there is also a time of unique opportunity,” Holzman said.

She said they have an opportunity to look at the future of the NCAA from this pandemic and if permanent changes will occur, like continuing to hold the tournament in one location.

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