Paisley Harding drives against Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game. (Decker Westenburg)

BYU women’s basketball upset by Gonzaga 71-59 in WCC title game

After bulldozing WCC opponents all season long, No. 15 BYU women’s basketball was brought back down to earth in a humbling, 71-59 upset loss to rival Gonzaga in Tuesday’s conference championship game.

It was hard to determine if BYU was playing in Las Vegas or “The Twilight Zone,” as the Cougars looked nothing like their typically dominant selves who had rewritten the program record books and were legitimate Final Four contenders all throughout the regular season. Despite a convincing 26-2 record entering Tuesday — with two wins against these same Bulldogs — nearly everything that could possibly backfire for the Cougars did just that.

After a Maria Albiero jumper on the game’s first possession gave BYU a 2-0 advantage, it seemed as if Monday’s semifinal wrestle with Portland was in the rearview mirror and the Cougars were cruising once again.

That peaceful feeling was short-lived. BYU’s lead lasted a mere 20 seconds before trailing for the remainder of the contest, ultimately falling to Gonzaga in the WCC title game for the second straight season.

“Tonight wasn’t our night,” head coach Jeff Judkins said. “We didn’t play the way we normally do. It happens.”

Gonzaga led by eight points at the half, with BYU cutting the deficit to as few as three in the fourth quarter. The Zags were seemingly incapable of missing an open look, knocking down 49% of their shots on the afternoon and shooting a sizzling 75% in a tight, crucial fourth quarter.

“I felt like we were climbing uphill all game,” Judkins said. “It’s hard playing a team three times.”

BYU’s 32% shooting clip from the field marked a season-worst for Judkins’ squad, along with the 12-point margin of defeat against Gonzaga.

The Cougars were out-rebounded, blocked six times, coughed up 12 turnovers and shot just 22% from behind the arc, with BYU’s All-Conference trio of Tegan Graham, Lauren Gustin and Paisley Harding held to a collective 8 of 35 shooting line — nearly unfathomable to consider heading into the matchup.

“We didn’t hit a lot of our open shots,” Albiero said. “I think some of us may have been trying to do too much here and there. We’ll learn from it.”

Shaylee Gonzales led the Cougars with 16 points, 12 rebounds and two steals, with Harding adding another 14 points amid Gonzaga’s effort to smother the star BYU backcourt duo.

The Bulldog defense dared BYU to beat it by giving Gustin and Graham open shots away from the lane, which worked flawlessly as the Cougars couldn’t quite adjust back to Gonzaga’s man defensive scheme from the heavy zone opposition they had faced against Portland on Monday.

Albiero played just 18 minutes due to a minor calf injury, which forced Gonzales to take on the primary point guard responsibilities on offense and resulted in an awkward transition preventing BYU’s offense from reaching full fluidity.

Despite the disappointing end to conference play, BYU will still certainly receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament during Sunday’s selection show, although the possibility of a top-four seed and hosting the first two rounds of the tournament has all but vanished.

“My team will bounce back, I promise you,” Judkins said. “We’re sad today, but we’ll be excited to play on. I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. No one thought we’d be where we are, but these guys did.”

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