Many people have heroes who they would love to emulate.
For the BYU women’s basketball team, this week those heroes would be a couple of men’s teams: North Dakota State, Harvard and Stephen F. Austin.
That’s because those three squads did what the Cougars want to do: Be a No. 12-seed who upsets a No. 5-seed in the NCAA tournament.
BYU will get its shot to follow in the footsteps of the Bison, the Crimson and the Lumberjacks when they take on North Carolina State in the first round of the women’s tournament Saturday in Los Angeles (4:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).
“I’ve been in this tournament a long time and it’s not a matter of seeding,” Cougar head coach Jeff Judkins said on Wednesday. “It’s who you match up with the best. NC State is a very good team. Their inside presence is as good as we’ve played since Gonzaga. It will really be a challenge for us.”
The big matchup in Saturday’s contest will be just that: Big.
BYU 6-foot-7 senior center Jennifer Hamson has been phenomenal for the Cougars, averaging 18.3 points per game, 11.2 rebounds per game and four blocks per game.
She’ll be contending with Wolfpack 6-5 senior center Markeisha Gatling, who leads her team with 17.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest.
“She’s a strong, physical player but she’s never played against someone of Jen’s size,” Judkins said. “It’s going to be a great matchup.”
Hamson said she feels like she’s ready for the challenge.
“I don’t go against (someone 6-5) a lot but I do a little,” she said. “Some of the Gonzaga bigs are a little bigger. I’m just excited. She’s a good back-to-the-basket player. She goes to a one-dribble move a lot but not all the time.”
Judkins said that although neither team has a lot of depth down low, post play will probably determine who wins.
“Whoever has the best game, that will be a big plus for their team,” he said. “That includes foul trouble, that includes rebounding, and just setting the presence for their team.”
To have the necessary presence, BYU will need to match the physicality the Wolfpack bring to the floor.
“They are definitely a physical team but the West Coast Conference is a physical conference as well,” Hamson said. “I think we’re ready for that physical aspect.”
Judkins, who was a physical post player himself at Utah and in the NBA, said the team tries to be physical but the referees don’t always allow them to play that type of game.
“That’s my style, so the more physical the more I like it,” he said. “My practices are that way. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”
Judkins said that to him the big issue is whether BYU can avoid costly droughts like the one that killed them in the WCC title game against Gonzaga.
“Every team is going to have runs,” he said. “Can this team when they have their run can we not let it go as long and bounce out of that? That’s my concern right now. We just have to make their runs short and ours longer.”
Part of that comes down to players like Cougar sophomore guard Lexi Eaton, who has averaged 16.9 points per game but struggled against the Bulldogs.
She said she learned from that game that she needs to do a better job controlling her emotions, particularly when the team is on the biggest stage.
“The big stage shows all of your weaknesses and you can’t get away with anything,” Eaton said. “I think it comes down to practicing handling your adrenaline.”
BYU senior guard Kim Beeston said she expects North Carolina State to put a lot of pressure on the guards and try and limit the entries into the post.
“That’s what we’ve been focusing on, handling pressure,” she said. “We want to have no regrets going into the tournament. That’s my personal theme because it could be the last time I play. I’m going to give it my all.”
She’s confident the Cougars are going to be able to come out strong and play at a high level.
“I think we need to come out aggressive and confident from the beginning,” Beeston said. “When we come out aggressive and confident in our style of basketball, I don’t think there are very many teams that can beat us. We usually beat ourselves. To come out and play our game from the tip and to execute defensively, I think will win the game.”
BYU will face the Wolfpack at 4:30 p.m. MDT on ESPN2 Saturday with the winner advancing to meet the winner of the Nebraska (No. 4-seed) vs. Fresno State (No. 13-seed) contest.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.