Shaylee Gonzales drives against Portland. (Decker Westenburg)

BYU women’s basketball survives Portland 59-52, advances to WCC title game

In the closest and most dramatic conference battle of the season, No. 15 BYU women’s basketball narrowly escaped Portland 59-52 in the WCC Tournament semifinal Monday afternoon in Las Vegas.

Deadlocked at 40 points heading into the fourth quarter, a free throw-heavy 19-12 Cougar run down the stretch ultimately punched BYU’s ticket to Tuesday’s conference final, with Shaylee Gonzales, Paisley Harding and Tegan Graham sinking nine of 10 late shots from the penalty stripe.

“They were very physical and very active,” BYU head coach Jeff Judkins said of Portland. “They ran a matchup zone against us, which we hadn’t seen all year, so it was nice in that last quarter to finally figure out what we could do against it. That’s how this team knows how to win, they just do whatever it takes.”

Each WCC contest for the Cougars had been settled by at least an 11-point margin prior to Monday, where the Pilots continued to stifle the Cougars just as they had in handing Judkins and company their lone conference loss of the season on Feb. 3.

A frustrated BYU squad shot a mere 35% from the field, fell into several lengthy scoring droughts and was swatted eight times by Portland’s towering Lucy Cochrane in a two-sided defensive dogfight that remained a tight, one-score game until the final minute.

Maria Albiero threads a pass between Portland defenders Lucy Cochrane, left, and Maisie Burnham. (Decker Westenburg)

Fighting amid Portland’s smothering press effort, Gonzales led the Cougar charge with 20 points and six rebounds, while Graham posted 11 points, 11 boards and six assists.

“When they press, we get sped up and our offense becomes stagnant,” Gonzales said. “I thought we did a good job staying composed.”

BYU’s team defense delivered when it mattered most, limiting the Pilots to 31.6% shooting on the day and surrendering just seven made field goals in the second half.

Tegan Graham drives against Portland. Graham had 11 points and 11 rebounds against the Pilots. (Decker Westenburg)

Graham was given the task of defending Portland’s leading scorer Alex Fowler — who burned the Cougars for 23 points in their last matchup— only for Graham to step up and hold Fowler to 5-of-17 shooting while posting an elite 68.2 defensive rating.

“Defense wins championships,” Judkins said. “I told the girls this the first day of the year, and I think they really took it to heart. (Portland) scored, but we made them work for every single basket.”

Harding scored 14 with five rebounds, Lauren Gustin grabbed 10 boards and Maria Albiero proved clutch in the final minutes with five points and an assist in the fourth quarter.

Now ranked a program-high No. 15 in the nation at 26-2 on the season, the Cougars will play in Tuesday’s conference championship game at 2 p.m. MST, facing either Gonzaga or San Francisco for a chance at BYU’s fourth WCC title and second in the past four years.

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