All of last week just felt special around practices and meetings, and that culminated Thursday with the biggest win for a BYU women's basketball team in quite some time.
The first victory against a ranked team since 2006, to be more specific, and exactly what the Cougars needed to place in their NCAA Tournament portfolio if they're to have a chance of receiving an at-large bid.
BYU went 25-9 last year, won 15 of its 16 games against a fairly week slate of Mountain West Conference teams, but an early flameout in the league tournament meant a second consecutive year to the WNIT. Before that were a couple of seasons without any postseason.
It's been since 2007 that Jeff Judkins' team last was part of the NCAA field. And the previous year, when it won at national power Stanford and also defeated nationally ranked New Mexico, there was a march to March Madness' second round.
For all of the heartbreak in recent years regarding postseason opportunities, Judkins was phenomenally upbeat last week. He oozed confidence, citing talent and preparation, and players took hold of the mood.
The team felt it, then went out and crushed No. 18-ranked Gonzaga by 30 points at home, turning a close halftime margin (four points) into a Marriott Center rout. BYU improved to 22-4, 10-2 in its first year of the West Coast Conference.
A lot has been made about BYU's talent level. And, yes, it's up this year with veteran Haley Steed, a very experienced point guard (often critical just like in the men's game), and some of the better outside shooters the program has had in recent years. Pair that with strong post play and a equally solid bill of health - something that really hindered BYU in the down times of recent winters - and there's a chance this season could play out more like Judkins' early days running the program. The Cougars and Zags are both 10-2 in league play and will meet again Feb. 25 in Spokane, Wash.
"(Thursday) it was conference play, pressure; we needed to get that game," Judkins said the following morning. "It was as good of a win for some of these players as they've had in their career. It was a very positive thing. Something our program needed. Sometimes you need to win a game that really means something."
Stacy Jensen understood that, too.
Perhaps forgotten by a lot of BYU followers is that Judkins had to almost totally revamp his staff this past offseason. He lost Jensen and Alli Bills, two aides that had been with him about a decade each. The friends came to separate decisions at separate times to leave coaching, Jensen said, though now they operate a basketball-related business together in which they train younger players.
Jensen was the Cougars' point guard on the 2001-02 team that in Judkins' first year advanced to the Sweet 16 and was within a few squandered possessions of even beating powerhouse Tennessee. Bills was on that staff, as well.
"They were a big part of our success," Judkins said.
Yet with fresh eyes being provided by some apparently good hires, Judkins could be up to something again.
Jensen watched the Gonzaga game and saw two things that stood out in comparison to the magical days she knew: The bonds seemed tighter than some years and leadership appeared strong.
Even more apparent to the untrained eyes, BYU defended very well, especially in the second half.
"And that leads to hitting shots," Jensen said. "Like in 2002, we really took pride in our defense, then we also had people who could score."
Judkins hadn't experienced much staff turnover in recent years. Chris Boettcher made the short drive down University Parkway after several years at UVU. He's now the recruiting coordinator, something he did with the Wolverines during some of their best years.
Judkins hired Ray Stewart, an AAU coach who had some players in past years the Cougars recruited.
The head coach also brought back former three-year starter Melinda Bendall (formerly Johnsen), who spent three years coaching at the high school level after graduation. She's one of Judkins' best-produced defenders he's coached and he compares her presence to Jeff Hornacek being on the Utah Jazz staff - someone the young players know, and her value is having been in the program and understands it to the core. She knows the system and "can relate to the players," the coach said.
Judkins said he's still on great terms with Jensen and Bills. Jensen said both came to the conclusion that the roller-coaster lifestyle of coaching (all of the travel for recruiting; the lack of social lives) had worn them thin as they sought to start families.
"I think they wanted to kind of get a change," he said. "It wasn't that I wanted them to go. They just had good opportunities for both of them. They were a big part of the success here, and that includes this year's team because they've worked with so many of these players."
Judkins said he's appreciated that, much like a college student who seeks a friend's fresh perspective on proofreading a paper, his new staffers bring different perspectives and ideas.
"It's been good for everyone," he said.