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Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Start
The BYU women's team gathers at center court at the start of a 90-minute practice at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, March 28, 2014, in Lincoln, Neb., in preparation for the NCAA Sweet 16.
We’ve made noise in the tournament and people can see by watching our games that women’s basketball is not just a slow-paced, boring game. It’s up-tempo and we bring a different factor to women’s basketball. It’s a fun game. We’re a good team. —BYU women's basketball guard Kim Beeston

LINCOLN, Neb. — For a program that averaged a little more than 700 fans per home game this season, the BYU women’s basketball team has created quite a national splash in recent days.

Emerging from obscurity, the Cougars have been profiled in the New York Times and featured on the front page of ESPN.com’s website.

That’s because of BYU’s improbable run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament that has set up a battle with No. 1 UConn — the undefeated, defending national champions — Saturday (2:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

The showdown will be broadcast on national television, and there's a spot in the Elite Eight at stake.

Suddenly, since upsetting North Carolina State and Nebraska in the first two rounds of the tournament, people are taking interest in the Cinderella Cougars, who are generally overshadowed even in Provo.

“Just walking around campus, everyone tells us good job,” said forward Morgan Bailey. “Teachers stop class and congratulate me and embarrass me in front of everyone. It’s great to see how many fans we have.”

Though BYU didn’t draw many fans this season, the players and coaches are grateful for the support they are receiving now.

“It’s pretty cool because people that probably don’t watch women’s basketball that often have heard about it,” said guard Kim Beeston. “If I’m wearing a BYU women’s basketball shirt, they’ll say something like, ‘Hey, we watched your game. That was awesome. Go get ’em.’ It’s really cool that people that wouldn’t talk to you before are saying things like that.”

How does this deep run in the tournament benefit the BYU women’s basketball program?

“It helps us exposure-wise and it helps (the West Coast Conference). It shows that our conference is strong,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “It proves that we’re not a fluke. Second, recruiting, no question. People see you on TV. It gets our name out there. We’re lucky with the exposure we get with BYUtv and other things. This is a great opportunity for us to show what BYU is made of. Hopefully, these young ladies (that are being recruited by BYU) will watch us and be impressed and want to come. It’s already helped so far. If we can take care of business and win that game (against UConn), it will be one of the biggest upsets ever. The next part of it is, it’s just good for our program to be successful, beating somebody that’s on top of the game.”

Unlike the men’s NCAA tournament, there is no financial windfall for women's teams. Schools that make the tournament field on the men’s side receive approximately $250,000, then another $250,000 for each tournament win — funds that come from the lucrative television contract with Turner/CBS. That money is shared with other conference members.

But there’s no payout for women’s teams in the tournament.

The Cougars are hoping one byproduct of their March Madness success is increased interest, and attendance, in the future.

“I think that is huge,” Beeston said. “We’ve made noise in the tournament and people can see by watching our games that women’s basketball is not just a slow-paced, boring game. It’s up-tempo and we bring a different factor to women’s basketball. It’s a fun game. We’re a good team.”

The way guard Lexi Eaton sees it, winning games in the tournament builds tradition. Perhaps the Cougars can ride the momentum of the Sweet 16 into next season, resulting in more fans in the seats.

“Tradition is important. If we have this little breakthrough — we’ve already had a huge breakthrough with beating two top teams — that’s changes the whole perspective,” Eaton said. “We beat these quality teams and we can compete with them. I think this is a huge game-changer for the program.”

Eaton added that her team's success goes deeper than just basketball.

“It’s unreal. Obviously when you go this deep in the tournament, you get a lot of attention,” she said. “We see it as a big opportunity for us. This attention does great things for the BYU program. It gets our name out there and more people learn about the religion. That’s what we’re all about — sharing our message.”

Just how powerful is UConn’s mystique and tradition? The Huskies, who boast eight national championships, average 8,312 fans per game for home games.

“That’s why UConn is such a powerhouse,” said Bailey. “They have such a great fan base behind them. They’ve earned it. We’re slowly earning it.”

When the Cougars hosted the Huskies in Provo in 2008, a crowd of 3,109 showed up to watch.

If BYU can somehow spring a monumental upset of UConn Saturday, maybe similar crowds will show up regularly at the Marriott Center.