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Las Vegas • Not often does anyone from BYU say something nice about former University of Utah men's basketball coach Rick Majerus, who died in 2012, but BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins is crediting his former mentor with teaching him how to approach conference tournaments.
Majerus' wisdom is paying dividends, because Judkins' Cougars are in prime position to win their third West Coast Conference tournament title in the five years they've been in the WCC.
Top-seeded BYU takes on fourth-seeded Santa Clara at 1 p.m. MST on Monday in a WCC semifinal game at Orleans Arena. The game will be televised by BYUtv. The Cougars (25-5) swept the Broncos (23-7) in the regular season, but both games were close, and Santa Clara is the second-hottest team in the tournament, behind BYU.
BYU advanced by knocking off Pepperdine 72-59 on Friday, while Santa Clara advanced with a thrilling 59-58 win over perennial power Gonzaga, thanks to a combined 39 points from its pair of All-WCC first-reamers, Marie Bertholdt and Lori Parkinson. The Broncos forced Gonzaga into 20 turnovers and had seven steals.
"Santa Clara's defense is a swarming zone, and these two players right next to me [Kalani Purcell and Makenzi Pulsipher] are going to have to play very well," Judkins said. "Makenzi is going to have to hit shots, and Kalani is going to have to pass through that zone. Hopefully we can do what we did the last two times against them."
Purcell flirted with a triple-double against Pepperdine, recording 19 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. The New Zealand native is eager to face Santa Clara, which also gets double-figure scoring from forward Morgan McGwire.
"They are a very physical team and you guys probably know that I am a physical player," Purcell said. "So I like the matchup a lot. I think they match up pretty well with us. The last games, we all matched up well. I am super excited for it."
As the defending conference tournament champions, the Cougars are developing a reputation for playing well in Las Vegas. They also won the WCC tournament title in 2012 and lost to Gonzaga in the 2014 championship game.
"My teams are usually playing their best at the end of the year," Judkins said. "There are a lot of reasons for that. One is I don't kill them early in the year. I give them time off so they are not sick of basketball. I try to be really careful the latter part of the season with practice times not being as long. I try to make things shorter in film. Little things like that that I have kinda learned over the years when I was with coach Majerus, and what the players used to tell me they hated."
Judkins said another key is instilling confidence in his players, a process that begins long before they get to the tournament site.
"You gotta make your team believe they can win it," he said. "And I have always tried to do that. I tell them that if they play like they can play, no matter if you are first in the league, or fifth or sixth, or whatever, if you come out and play your game you have a good chance of winning."
Judkins said this team is built for a long tournament run, because it is deep and versatile and has plenty of scoring weapons.
"We can score from the outside, we can hit the three, we can get to the basket," he said. "We are getting a better inside presence with Kalani trying to do it more and Jasmine [Moody] being more aggressive."
Rydalch, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds against Pepperdine, said the Cougars are in a good spot, but Santa Clara is a formidable foe.
"In tournaments, I think it is important to be able to handle when teams go on runs," she said. "And there is just so much momentum in those tournaments, if teams can get hot, it is scary. The big part is just staying together as a team, shortening their runs and making ours longer."
Pulsipher went just 2 of 11 on Thursday, but the 3-point shooting specialist says she likes shooting at Orleans Arena and expects to find her stroke on Monday. She's BYU's second-leading scorer, averaging 12.7 points per game.
"I like this gym," she said. "I had a few shots that didn't fall, but I had teammates that put them right back in, which to me is just as good as a [made] shot. So I was happy that we were able to find another way to score."
Saint Mary's and San Francisco square off at 3 p.m. MST in the other semifinal. The championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday.
WCC women's tournament
P WCC Semifinal Game
BYU vs. Santa Clara
Tipoff • Monday, 1 p.m. MST, Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
TV • BYUtv
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM and Sirius XM 143
Records • BYU 25-5; Santa Clara 23-7
Series • BYU leads, 12-1
Last meeting • BYU 70, SCU 63 (Feb. 13, 2016)
About the Cougars • The tournament's top seed, they advanced to the semifinals with a 72-59 win over Pepperdine on Friday behind double-doubles from Kalani Purcell and Lexi Rydalch. They have won 17 of their last 18 games. … The WCC Player of the Year, Rydalch is averaging 24.3 points per game.
About the Broncos • They have won eight of their last 10 games and defeated No. 5 seed Gonzaga in Friday's quarterfinals. … They are led in scoring by Lori Parkinson, a WCC first-team selectee who averages 11.3. … They were swept by BYU in the season series, losing 68-63 in Santa Clara and 70-63 in Provo.