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Guest commentary: BYU women's upset bid evokes memories of past men's runs in the NCAA tournament

By Ken Driggs

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 1 2014 10:40 a.m. MDT

07.31.98 - BYU's John Fairchild (left) and Dick Nemelka joke with coach Frank Arnold during Utah-BYU Legends basketball charity game. PHOTO BY GARY MCKELLAR.

GARY MCKELLAR, DNEWS

As my wife Kerry and I watched the BYU women's basketball team forge a second-half lead over the No. 1 ranked Connecticut Huskies, I remembered that the men's teams had gone through similar experiences over the years.

This was especially true during the coaching reigns of Frank Arnold and Roger Reid. These two coaches led the Cougars to 13 NCAA games, with only five wins, the bulk of those coming in the magic run of 1981. As improbable as it sounds, BYU led each of those 13 opponents in the second half in every game.

Fast forward to the ultimate improbability, could the Lady Cougars knock off a 35-point favorite in this year's NCAA Sweet 16? How many of you repeated actor Jim Carey's famous line, "so, you're telling me there's a chance," when Jen Hamson, Morgan Bailey, Kim Beeston and Lexie Eaton powered the BYU team into a second-half lead? The team gained a great deal of respect, even with the loss.

Well, it happened before, and it certainly will happen again. It should dissuade naysayers who have said that BYU teams can't compete at the highest levels. The women's team reinforced the fearless mantra that pervades the BYU teams and coaches who say "bring on the best."

Frank Arnold's first WAC Conference title came in 1979, with juniors Alan Taylor and Scott Runia, sophomore Danny Ainge, and freshmen Fred Roberts and Devin Durrant. The team then headed to Tucson to play Bill Cartwright and the University of San Francisco Dons in the NCAA tournament. The Cougars led at the half but wound up losing to the Dons. With all of the starters returning the next year, the Cougars had a sterling regular season, but faced a formidable Clemson team in Ogden in the NCAA early round. The Cougars played well but again lost a second-half lead late in the game and lost to the Tigers.

It then became redemption time. In 1981, with Greg Kite, Steve Craig and Steve Trumbo added to the starting lineup and Durrant on a mission, the Cougars downed Princeton in the NCAA first round. BYU then played third-seeded UCLA, second-seeded Notre Dame and No. 1 seeded Virginia. With that daunting task ahead of them, who would have believed that the Cougars would ultimately be one half away from a Final Four berth?

After dispatching the Bruins and the Fighting Irish, the Cougars led Virginia at halftime before Ralph Sampson marshaled a second-half comeback win for the favored Cavaliers. The loss did not erase the memories of the deepest run the Cougars have made in the NCAA tournament.

Roger Reid's teams only won two of their NCAA tournament games, but the opponents certainly knew that the Cougars came to play. In Reid's first year as head coach, the No. 12 seeded Cougars lost by one to highly favored Clemson in the 1990 tournament. The next year, shot-blocking freshman phenom Shawn Bradley helped BYU to a win over Virginia in the first round, and the Cougars led second-seeded Arizona in the second half before succumbing.

The 1992 Cougars, fresh off a three-quarter court shot by Kevin Nixon to win the WAC tournament championship, faced formidable LSU and massive Shaquille O'Neal at Boise in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Although the Cougars lost the matchup, the fans got their money's worth with a BYU second-half surge that temporarily gave them the lead.

BYU defeated SMU in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament, then faced mighty Kansas, the No. 2 seed. After a flurry of 3-point baskets by Cougar guard Nick Sanderson put BYU ahead in the second half, the Jayhawks came back to win. Tulane outlasted the Cougars in the 1995 NCAA first round after BYU once again led at halftime.

One way to change fortunes for the Cougars in the coming years is to start out with a higher seed. There are only so many ways that you can paint a bright picture out of a loss. With the stability of the programs directed by coaches Jeff Judkins and Dave Rose, I am looking forward to more second-half leads that will bring bright-picture NCAA wins for the Cougars.

Ken Driggs of Mesa, Ariz., is a BYU graduate and served as Cosmo in the ’60s. Contact him at kkdriggs@gmail.com.

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