There’s nothing quite like showing you belong.
The BYU women’s basketball team was clearly on the NCAA Tournament bubble in 2021 and made it as a No. 11 seed, the last at-large team selected. The Cougars proved their worth with an upset of No. 6 seed Rutgers in the first round and a near-upset of No. 3 Arizona in the second round.
After the loss to Arizona, coach Jeff Judkins and his players were already talking about how they wanted to get in the gym to prepare for next season.
Some added incentive: The Wildcats beat Texas A&M and Indiana to advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Here’s a look at the Top 10 moments of the 2020-21 season.
10. Shooting lights out
The Cougars ended up shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line in 2020-21 and early in the season showed off with 14 3-pointers in a 72-58 victory against a good Montana State team.
9. To the victors
Shaylee Gonzales was named co-Player of the Year (along with Gonzaga’s Jenn Wirth) just one season after suffering a terrible knee injury. Paisley Harding and Lauren Gustin earned first-team All-WCC honors and Judkins was named Coach of the Year.
8. Gustin averages double-double
Gustin began her career at the University of Idaho but soon transferred to Salt Lake Community College. She committed to BYU after the 2018-19 season but had to sit out the 2019-20 campaign. In her first year of eligibility Gustin exceeded expectations by averaging a double double (11.3 points, 12.6 rebounds) and earned AP Honorable Mention All-American honors.
7. Pandemic pressure
Just like the men’s team, the women’s program had several games cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 protocols but it was always because of their opponents, not their own players.
6. Coming back
The NCAA has granted players an additional year of eligibility because of the pandemic, but there were no guarantees that BYU’s seniors would take advantage of that opportunity. Early in the season, seniors Harding, Sara Hamson, Tegan Graham and Maria Albiero told Judkins they were going to come back for the 2021-22 season.
5. Revenge is sweet
The Cougars lost at San Francisco 86-72 in the regular season finale and vowed to play better when the two teams met in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament. BYU outscored the Dons 19-3 in the second quarter and won in a rout, 85-55.
4. Ready to play
Gonzales missed the entire 2019-20 season due to an ACL tear, so the opener against LSU at South Point Shootout in Las Vegas was the first real test of her recovery. She responded with 30 points, making 6 of 7 from the 3-point line, to lead the Cougars to a 67-51 victory.
3. Big-Game Pais
Harding loves a big game and she responded with a 28-point effort, tying her season high, is BYU’s 69-66 first-round victory against No. 6 seed Rutgers. Harding was completely focused and made big shot after big shot for the Cougars.
2. Beating the Zags
The Cougars felt like they let one get away in Spokane earlier in the season, rallying to tie the game at 54 with two minutes to go before losing 63-56. On February 14 in Provo, BYU finished the job. Harding converted a tough left-handed driving shot in the final minute to help clinch the 61-56 win.
1. Selection Monday
BYU was on bubble watch during Selection Monday and nervously took in the ESPN broadcast. No one was more surprised than the Cougars when their name was announced as a No. 11 seed – the last at-large team invited. Their reaction as captured by Harding on her cell phone was priceless.
Honorable Mention: An eight-game conference winning streak; The emergence of grad transfer Tegan Graham as a leader and the best 3-point shooter on the team; Finishing 9-0 in the Marriott Center.