It was heart-stopping, but when the No. 12-seed BYU women's basketball team had to have someone in the right place at the right time against No. 4-seed Nebraska, Cougar senior Jennifer Hamson answered the bell — twice.
Hamson first came up with a crucial loose ball for a layup with a foul, then sealed the win with two free throws in the final seconds. That secured the 80-76 upset and become only the third No. 12 seed in NCAA women's basketball history to reach the Sweet 16.
"I can't be more happy," BYU head coach Jeff Judkins said. "We worked all year long and it's so great to see that effort pay off. You've got to give Nebraska a lot of credit for coming back like they did. It was sad to see someone lose."
The Cougars had to desperately hang on in the final minute as the Cornhuskers scored six straight points to cut a nine-point BYU lead to just three at 75-72. With more than 40 seconds left in the game, Nebraska elected to play defense and hope to get a shot to tie at the end.
With nearly Cougar fan holding their breath and every Cornhusker supporter imploring their team to play defense, BYU worked the ball to sophomore guard Lexi Eaton, its best one-on-one attacker.
Eaton drove the lane and tried to go up as the shot clock wound down, but the ball was knocked away. In the scramble that ensued, Hamson came up with it and knew precisely what to do.
"The play was Lexi was going to take it and I knew she was a girl who likes to get through and score," she said. "I was just there in case she didn't quite make it and so it ended up bouncing off a defender right into my hands. So I do what I try to do best, which is get it in the basket."
Her layup and the foul set off a wild Cougar celebration.
"At that moment, I just wanted to cry," BYU junior guard Xojian Harry said. "I was like, 'yes, Jen!' I look over at the bench and everyone is holding each other back because they are all trying to run out but holding each other back at the same time. Everyone on the court is yelling and going over to Jen to jump on her. That was an awesome moment."
The six-point edge with under 20 seconds to go appeared to be plenty for the Cougars to get the win, but Nebraska had one last desperate play to make. A BYU foul resulted in two Cornhusker foul shots, then Nebraska stole the ball in backcourt and tacked on a layup to make it 78-76 with just 4.4 second left.
With the Cornhuskers flying around, trying frantically to get the steal on the ensuing inbounds pass, the Cougars just tossed it up to where the 6-foot-7 Hamson could get it.
The senior secured the catch, forcing Nebraska to foul, then calmly drained both free throws to end any hope of a Cornhusker miracle.
"I wanted to stay calm and confident," Hamson said. "I pride myself on being good at free throws and so I knocked them in."
Moments later the buzzer sounded and BYU rushed the court to celebrate earning the second trip to the Sweet 16 in program history.
"It feels so surreal right now," Harry said. "We keep looking around at each other and we're like, 'guys, we're going to the Sweet 16.' Right now we are just peaking as a team and everyone is stepping up big time. It's this awesome feeling where I'm so happy that I feel like I'm going to cry."
Early on in the contest, it appeared the underdog Cougars would replicate their easy first-round victory as they roared out to a 17-point lead (37-20) behind the play of junior forward Morgan Bailey, who paced BYU with 18 points.
"I knew I might have a mismatch tonight," Bailey said. "I wasnt sure what they were going to do and my teammates did a really good job of getting me the ball. I just pride myself on going hard to the basket and that's what I tried to do tonight."
But Nebraska wasn't about to surrender and rattled off some big runs of its own. A 11-3 Cornhusker spurt midway through the second half made it a 53-52 contest and to compound the concerns, Hamson picked up her fourth foul and had to come out.
With the game on the line, BYU come out firing and knocked down a series of key shots: A 3-pointer by senior Kim Beeston, a layup and an 18-footer by Eaton, and three 3-pointers by Harry.
"Xojian is a money player," Judkins said. "My freshman year we played Duke at home and they were ranked second in the country. She came in and hit three 3-pointers. That's the kind of kid she is. She loves these big moments. Tonight really showed that."
Harry said with Nebraska packing it in to stop the Cougar post game, the openings were there.
"We came into a timeout and Juddy (Judkins) is just like let them fly," she said. "They were sagging it off of me and I owe it all to my teammates because they were double-teaming on Jen. That left me open, so I just took them with confidence like Judkins told me to and they went in. It was an awesome feeling."
Her shooting got the BYU lead back to 11 points before the Cornhuskers mounted their final charge to set up the thrilling conclusion.
"Congratulations to BYU," Nebraska head coach Connie Yori said. "They played really well. Offensively they were very efficient. They had a number of kids who made plays. They deserved to win."
The Cougars had four players in double figures as Bailey was joined by Hamson (15 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks), Eaton (15 points) and Harry (11 points).
With the win, the Cougars advance to the Sweet 16 in Lincoln, Neb., where they will face either No. 1-ranked (and undefeated) Connecticut or No. 9 seed St. Joseph's.
"We're praying like crazy that St. Joseph's wins," Judkins said with a big grin. "That would be our luck, wouldn't it? I'm good friends with (UConn head coach Geno Auriemma) and we played them twice a few years ago. We're going to have to go in and play our game. We're going to change some things up but luckily I have enough time to worry about it and work on it. I know we'll fight and I know these guys know they can beat anybody. If they play the way they are supposed to play, they can beat anybody. That's what we're excited about."
The Sweet 16 contest will take place Saturday with the time yet to be announced.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.