LAS VEGAS — The BYU women's basketball team ended its West Coast Conference season on Tuesday sitting on the winners' podium, taking questions after celebrating an 82-68 championship win over Gonzaga. It's a spot only a few assumed the team was capable of during the preseason — and during some difficult junctures throughout the regular season.
But time and again, the Cougars proved able to overcome whatever challenges came their way and rise to the top.
Tuesday's game worked as a bit of a microcosm of the entire season where the Cougars got off to a rough start and battled through to encounter some other challenges — all of which they overcame to win the WCC's ultimate team prize.
"I'm so proud of our team because I don't think anybody thought we'd be here, except for them," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins during his opening comments, nodding to both Brenna Chase and Paisley Johnson, who represented the players on the postgame podium. "They worked their hearts. They played great and they weren't afraid of the challenge. As a coach, it's all you ever want — for a team to go to battle for you and do everything they can to be successful."
While the first quarter saw competitive play from both sides, the Cougars came out in the second quarter rolling. Locking down on defense led to open opportunities on the other end in what proved a game-defining 16-0 run that gave them a commanding 35-23 lead with just over two minutes remaining until the half.
"I think we saw, not the fear in their eyes, but they were a little freaked out," Johnson said of the second quarter run. "We just took advantage and kept running it down their throats."
As for Johnson, she proved productive yet again, scoring 19 points but more importantly hitting big shots to halt Gonzaga runs while providing the emotional spark for her team, much as she's accomplished throughout the season. Her efforts earned her tournament Most Outstanding Player honors, after being left off the WCC first-team list for the regular season.
"I told (Judkins) that there was obviously something I needed to take care of, so I wanted to come out here and prove that," Johnson said, relating a conversation she had with her coach just prior to the tournament. "Not only to get a tournament championship, but show the conference what type of player I can be."
Also proving big was junior guard Chase, who led the Cougars with 25 points scored while converting five of her first seven 3-point attempts.
"I guess when it's going in, it's going in. You just know," Chase, who was surprisingly left off the all-tournament team, said.
Joining Johnson on the all-tournament team was freshman guard Shaylee Gonzales, who again played well beyond her years while scoring 20 points, dishing out four assists and grabbing seven rebounds.
Indeed Judkins' three starting guards have been the focal point for this year's team, and for good reason, with all three taking some pointed direction from Judkins following a three-game losing streak midway through conference play.
"I told them that the pressure is on you," Judkins said. "You can't just show up. You have to play your game, and scoring isn't everything. You have to play your game for this team to win, and I challenged them. … So they decided right there that (losing) wasn't going to happen again, and it didn't."
BYU hasn't lost since incurring that three-game skid, winning eight straight to end the regular season with its third West Coast Conference championship.
It wasn't all smooth-sailing for the Cougars on Tuesday, with multiple whistles against them in the third quarter helping Gonzaga mount a comeback to cut the lead to 60-52 midway through. But again the Cougars fought through the 18 foul shots attempted by the Bulldogs to maintain a 65-56 lead heading into the fourth.45 comments on this story
"It's real hard because the same thing happened to us when we played at Gonzaga," Judkins said. "… The worst part of it is the clock stops. … Then you get out of rhythm a little bit because you're standing around. But I think since we had that opportunity early this season, that it was a little bit better."
The Cougars weren't challenged throughout the fourth quarter to come away with the win and a conference championship, proving to rise to the challenge yet again.
"It's hard to have the pressure on you on the time, but these girls relish it," Judkins said.