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Nati Harnik, AP
BYU's Kristine Fuller (22) and Makenzi Morrison (23) hug as they walk off the court following a 70-51 loss to Connecticut in a regional semifinal in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Of course, the BYU women’s basketball team was disappointed in the moments immediately following a hard-fought 70-51 loss to No. 1 UConn Saturday in the NCAA tournament.

But it didn’t take long for the Cougars to put the disappointment behind them.

As the players gathered in the locker room at Pinnacle Bank Arena after the game, coach Jeff Judkins told them to relish their remarkable season that saw them advance to the Sweet 16 — an achievement they hope will provide a springboard for future success.

“Juddy told us keep our heads high because we did have a good season. We did things people never thought we could do,” said forward Morgan Bailey. “It’s a great feeling to be able to make it to the Sweet 16 when you’re a No. 12 seed. Now, looking back at all the hurdles we had to jump, it’s definitely a proud feeling. We’re ready for more next year.”

Judkins knows how hard it is to get to the Sweet 16. He guided BYU there in 2002, and it took 12 years to get back. The Cougars finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 28-6 record — the most wins in the history of the program.

“We’ve got some good young players,” Judkins said. “I’m hoping this will be a good foundation for us to keep getting better and recruiting the right players for our system.”

Wins over nationally ranked North Carolina State and Nebraska in the NCAA tournament were impressive, and facing a team like unbeaten UConn was a big opportunity and an arduous challenge.

“Everyone has learned and grown," Bailey said. "We were playing our best basketball at the end and we know what we have to do now to compete with the big dogs. Playing on this big stage is a whole different kind of basketball than the basketball we play in Provo.”

“It was an incredible experience,” guard Lexi Eaton said of playing in the NCAA tournament. “I’m so excited to see the fight in this team. I’m really proud. It’s such a valuable experience to play against top teams. We know we can hang with the best of them. That’s really promising, and we’re really motivated to pick up where we left off.”

Unfortunately for the Cougars, they will lose two senior starters — center Jennifer Hamson and guard Kim Beeston.

“They’re both big-time players,” said Eaton. “Jen’s incredible. Her height is hard to replace. Kim’s given us steady leadership and example. She’s been a great player to play with. Our games really complemented each other all year long. We’re definitely going to miss both of them.”

“I’m really proud of (Hamson and Beeston),” Judkins said. “What great seniors. I mean, hard workers, team players, great leaders. You saw (Saturday) what those guys have done all season for us.”

Beeston thoroughly enjoyed her senior season.

“It was exciting knowing that we were playing such great basketball against such a great program,” she said after the setback to UConn. “This year has been a complete blast with the girls, on and off the court. We're all best friends and it is such a great way to go out on such a high note. Yeah, we would’ve liked to get a little bit deeper, but I think that getting to the Sweet 16 and playing UConn was something that both Jen and I will never forget, and I think most of the girls will never forget, either."

“It has been an amazing season. No one expected us to do anything,” said guard Xojian Harry. “Everyone expected us to lose that first game in the tournament. Before that, we were picked fourth in our conference. We had faith in ourselves. We knew we had a great team, and we played BYU basketball. This will be a season I never forget.”

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who attended Saturday’s Sweet 16 game in Lincoln, is very happy with the direction of the women’s basketball program.

"We have had a solid women’s basketball program under Jeff's direction, including conference championships and postseason appearances,” Holmoe said. “Advancing to the Sweet 16 is another great achievement for the program. Building a winning tradition is not easy in college athletics. I feel our women’s basketball program can continue to gain strength through effective recruiting, continued player development and precise coaching.

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“Jeff has worked hard to build a tradition of winning at BYU,” Holmoe continued. “He has put together a strong coaching staff, recruited great student-athletes, and has them competing at a very high level. Jeff has a great deal of basketball experience both as a player and a coach, and has the program in a position to achieve more and more. We're grateful for his commitment to our student-athletes and our women's basketball program."

For the players, preparation for next season begins Monday — two days after throwing a scare into the No. 1 team in the country.

“You can’t be too disappointed with the effort that we put into it,” Eaton said. “We’re definitely excited for the future.”