LAS VEGAS — Kristen Riley had been waiting for this a while. Going to a conference tournament, talking about it — and not doing so with a salty, despondent sting in her eyes.
"A whole year," Riley said, alluding to BYU's last-second loss to Utah during both schools' final participation in the Mountain West Conference postseason.
Well, a lot can happen in a year. Like the Cougars getting a fabulous new shooter.
Former Springville star Lexi Eaton no longer has the offense quite run all through her, but she can sure finds ways to make a difference.
Eaton had a career-high 26 points, split evenly between the halves of the West Coast Conference semifinal win against San Diego, 64-46.
"I'm lucky," coach Jeff Judkins said. "I have good players."
And this year, they came to shine when it counts. Last March, at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, BYU continued its streak to four consecutive years of not even winning a conference tournament game.
The shooting numbers bore out why: The Cougars fired between 31-37 percent from the field in those defeats from 2007-11. They were between seven and 41 percent from 3-point range.
And now? Try 41/31, building a 29-21 halftime lead and setting the stage for a third showdown of No. 2 BYU with top seed Gonzaga at 1 p.m. MST on Monday.
The teams split their two February meetings, each winning handily at home.
Eaton had a combined 17 points in the two showcases between the clear-cut top two WCC teams. But she fared better in the loss, Feb. 23, by making 4-of-6 shots.
Eaton, playing in what senior teammate Haley Steed called a "systematic offense," is figuring out how to make an impact despite the changes from her high school days.
"She's got some confidence that not a lot of freshmen have," said Riley, the WCC's player of the year who had seven points and 10 rebounds. "That's what we needed tonight. We needed someone to take over, kind of get the jitters out of us."
Eaton had a 3-pointer to start the game and an and-one play to make it a 17-13 lead with 12:12 before halftime.
Eaton could sense that her older teammates needed to win this one, tired of going home early.
"Lexi had that aggressiveness right from the start," Steed said after an eight-assist effort. "She's a great scorer and so strong physically. A lot of players come to this level and they were stars on their teams. It's an adjustment for everyone. But Lexi's made it easier by being ready physically to play right from the start. She is very strong."
Brawny enough that Judkins, 55, joked he would still be in the NBA if "I could drive like" Eaton finds ways to the rim.