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Las Vegas • BYU's women's basketball team lost four of its final five regular-season games, and entered the West Coast Conference tournament with one of its star players hurting, little confidence and even less momentum.
But look at the Cougars now.
Coach Jeff Judkins' fifth-seeded team is going dancing for the third time in four seasons after rolling past sixth-seeded San Francisco 76-65 in the WCC championship game on Tuesday afternoon at Orleans Arena. The Cougars (22-9) earned the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by making 11 of 22 3-point attempts and holding off a mild charge by a San Francisco (19-12) team that entered the tourney as hot as any team in the league.
"Holy cow. Three weeks ago I didn't know we would be here," Judkins said from the podium as the Cougars collected their plaques and trophies and cut down the nets. He dedicated the win to forward Ashley Garfield, the senior whose career was cut short in January by an ACL tear.
Junior sharpshooter Lexi Eaton scored 22 points and was named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player. Senior Morgan Bailey (20 points) and sophomore Makenzi Morrison (18) also made the all-tourney team.
BYU is the lowest-seeded team to win the WCC women's basketball tournament.
"It was pretty awesome, just to overcome that, and I think we showed that numbers don't mean a lot to us," said Eaton, whose 30 points and baseline jumper in the final seconds beat Saint Mary's 65-64 last Thursday and got the Cougars rolling again. Eaton then had 16 in the Cougars' 61-55 upset of top-seeded Gonzaga on Monday.
"Very few teams could have lost four of their last five and came back and done this," Judkins said.
After Judkins acknowledged his doubts from three weeks ago, Eaton said she knew the Cougars had it in them all along.
"We had a lot to go through three weeks ago, and we are battle-tested," Eaton said. "I think it was a blessing in disguise, because people stepped up and found their role with this team through those tough times."
No player overcame more than Bailey, the WCC Player of the Year who battled back spasms and knee and ankle injuries the second half of the season and gutted it out through the tournament when at times she labored to make it up the court.
"Morgan this year has been solid as a rock," Judkins said. "Four years ago, I never would have thought that."
The Cougars also got a huge lift Tuesday from Morrison, the sweet-shooting Alta High product who had shown flashes of brilliance in the regular season and caught fire in the tournament. After going 4-for-6 from beyond the arc on Monday, she bettered that effort a day later, hitting 5 of 8 treys en route to 19 points. Morrison also made the all-tourney team.
"Earlier in the season, I had some ups and downs as teams adjusted to me, and so I just felt prepared with what [USF] was going to do with their zone. … I enjoy playing against zones, as a shooter," Morrison said.
Point guard Kyle Maeda added eight points and five assists and senior Xojian Harry chipped in six points and helped hold USF's Taylor Proctor to 10 points, five below her average. The Cougars had 18 assists to USF's 11, the 24th time in 31 games they've had more assists than their opponent.
"This was a long four weeks, and to be able to top if off like we did this weekend shows a lot of character from my team and my coaches," Judkins said. "This team could have quit."
But it didn't and now it is off to the Big Dance.
"It is big-time to go to the NCAA Tournament," Eaton said. "That's what I love the most, is playing against the best teams in the country and seeing if we can prove ourselves."
R Lexi Eaton scores 22 points and earns Most Outstanding Player as BYU advances to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
• Morgan Bailey (20 points) and Makenzi Morrison (19) also make the all-tournament team.