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Los Angeles • They had it in the bag. Then they had all but squandered it away.
BYU went through some wild swings on Monday night at Pauley Pavilion, leading by as much as 17 and nearly losing all of it.
But in the end, senior Jennifer Hamson willed the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 berth since 2002, as she sank her final free throws to give them a 80-76 victory over No. 4 seed Nebraska.
The Cougars established themselves as this year's Cinderella of the Big Dance only the third-ever 12 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament history. Their season rolls on, next in Lincoln, Neb., where they'll hope Cornhusker fans will join their following as one of March's biggest surprises.
BYU will face the winner of No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 9 Saint Joseph's on Saturday.
"When you're playing together, and you're playing well, anything can happen," Hamson said. "I just love that."
Morgan Bailey led BYU with 18, but Hamson helped guide the squad as the game got hairy at the finish. She hit a putback and an extra point to make the lead six, but the Cornhuskers managed to get back-to-back field goals after a steal by Tear'a Laudermill.
With only a two-point lead with 4.4 seconds left, BYU inbounded it to Hamson who was immediately fouled. Hamson, who dislocated a finger in the first-round game, coolly sunk a pair of foul shots, and Nebraska couldn't get a final Hail Mary to fall.
The Cougars ran to the center of the floor, shouting with delight after matching BYU's best-ever performance in the tournament, a moment they've sought for a long while.
"It's taken me 12 years to get back here," Judkins said, the grin stretching across his face afterward. "I'm not going to take it for granted again."
It was all the Cougars could do to hold on to what once was a sure victory.
The first half was nearly all BYU, with the Cougars running up to a double-digit lead in the first few minutes. Nebraska seemed flat-footed at the start and couldn't find holes against the defense led by Hamson, who had three first-half blocks.
Bailey helped get the offense rolling with her hooks off the glass, as did Lexi Eaton at the free-throw line and Stephanie Rovetti and Kylie Maeda with 3-pointers. At its best, BYU rang up a 37-20 lead on the Huskers with four minutes left in the first half.
From there, the cushion steadily faded away. Nebraska's Jordan Hooper started showing the game that made her Big 10 player of the year, with backdoor cuts and silky jumpers. The Cougars ceded a 10-4 run to end the first half, and kept losing steam into the second.
Down to a two-point lead, Xojian Harry gave them a bit of breathing room. The junior knocked down three 3-pointers in a minute-and-a-half as part of an 11-1 run that put BYU up by 12 again.
BYU needed all the breaks it could get down the stretch. The sum of them was a thrilling victory few would've expected entering the weekend.
"It feels so surreal right now," Harry said. "We just keep looking around and saying, 'Guys, we're going to the Sweet 16!' This is amazing, and right now we're all just peaking as a team together, playing together."
Storylines Cougs beat Cornhuskers to match 2002 run
R The Cougars reach the third round for first time since 2002.
• Morgan Bailey leads BYU with 18 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
• Jennifer Hamson and Lexi Eaton each add 15 points.