LAS VEGAS — Not too long ago, things looked bleak for the BYU women’s basketball team.
The Cougars, who have dealt with plenty of adversity by way of injuries and close losses this season, entered the West Coast Conference tournament having lost four of their previous five games.
With its share of low moments, No. 5 seed BYU wasn't expected to be standing on top of the podium at Orleans Arena amid the ticker tape cascading from the ceiling while hoisting the championship trophy.
But that's what the Cougars were doing after defeating No. 6 seed San Francisco, 76-65, Tuesday afternoon.
“Very few teams could have lost four of five and come back and done this,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “It shows what kind of young ladies they are.”
With the win, the Cougars became the lowest seed to claim the WCC tournament title. BYU also earned the WCC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where they’ll play for the third time in four years.
“It’s big-time to be going to the NCAA tournament. That’s what I love the most, playing against the best teams in the country and seeing how we can prove ourselves,” said guard Lexi Eaton, who scored 22 points Tuesday and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“We had a lot to go through three weeks ago," Eaton continued. "We were kind of battle-tested. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because a lot of people stepped up big and found roles on this team through those tough times. We just have to be persistent in those times and be ready to play when it counts.”
“I have a lot of belief in these girls and they have a lot of heart,” said forward Morgan Bailey, who scored 20 points and pulled down eight rebounds against the Dons. “It showed this weekend in Vegas. It’s amazing to be going to the NCAA tournament again. We’re ready to make some noise again.”
Guard Makenzi Morrison chipped in 19 points, including five 3-pointers against USF.
“These three had a great tournament, but more importantly, they’ve had a great season,” coach Jeff Judkins said of Eaton, Bailey and Morrison. “They’ve really stuck together. Each one of them does something for this team to be successful."
BYU (22-9) led almost the entire game, trailing only briefly in the first half.
Midway through the first half, USF led 20-17 before BYU enjoyed a 16-0 spurt that featured four 3-pointers. The Cougars led at that point, 33-20.
Morrison’s third 3-pointer of the half propelled BYU to a 39-24 advantage with 40 seconds before halftime.
In its semifinals upset of No. 2 seed San Diego Monday, San Francisco (19-12) rallied from a big first-half deficit.
“That’s exactly what we talked about, that they came back on San Diego,” Eaton said. “We were aware of that. They weren’t going to roll over. It was really important for us the first 10 minutes of the second half to throw the first punch and set the tone.”
USF never got closer than eight points the rest of the way. Every time San Francisco seemed to grab the momentum, BYU would snatch it right back, usually with a 3-pointer. The Cougars went 11 of 22 from 3-point range.
While USF’s Taj Winston scored a game-high 24 points, the Dons struggled against the Cougars’ 2-3 zone, shooting just 34 percent.
“We were taking a lot of quick shots early,” Winston said. “We were attacking the basket and shooting through their 2-3 (zone). We did dig that hole, but we kept fighting and that’s all we could do.”
“I’m not a zone coach. I’m a man coach,” Judkins said. “My assistants urged me to go (zone). It paid off tonight.”
The Cougars’ confidence and experience certainly paid off in the WCC tournament. Eaton scored a last-second shot to eliminate Saint Mary’s last Thursday, then BYU knocked off top-seed Gonzaga Monday, and capped off its run with a convincing victory over San Francisco.
"I think our experience helped tonight. We have a lot of players that have been in this situation before," Judkins said. "They didn’t want to let it slip through their fingers. It’s kind of like getting the cookie in the cookie jar — make sure you grab it and get it. I’m really happy for them.”