LAS VEGAS — The BYU women's basketball team in general and senior guard Erin Thorn in particular continued their torrid Mountain West Conference Tournament play on the Thomas & Mack Center court, as the No. 5 seed Cougars upset regular-season champion Utah 70-59 in semifinal action Friday afternoon.
By beating Utah for the first time in three tries this season, BYU returns to the championship game for the fourth straight time and also becomes the first team seeded lower than No. 3 to advance to the MWC championship game.
Meanwhile, Thorn — a three-year all-tournament selection and last year's tourney MVP — followed up her tournament record 34 points in the Cougars' victory over UNLV in Wednesday's quarterfinals with a 30-point effort Friday against the Utes. She scored all but three in the second half.
"We really like this place . . . it's been very good to us," said BYU head coach Jeff Judkins, who expects his team to be repeat tournament champions and earn the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Judkins seems to think BYU has already clinched a return trip to the NCAAs, where the Cougars won two games last year, including an upset over No. 3 national seed Iowa State and a spot in the Sweet 16.
"I think we're in," he said, with two MWC tournament wins giving BYU a 19-10 record. Judkins explained he thought BYU was attractive already with 19-20 victories, a tough schedule and — even though he knows the selection committee would use it as a factor — last year's NCAA success.
With her 34 points Wednesday and 30 Friday, Thorn is the fourth player at BYU to reach the 2,000-point plateau, now at 2,039 for her career and 562 for the season. She holds the tournament record for most career points at 187 and counting.
Cheesman added 15 points, including 11 in the first half, and point guard Kestlee Nelson added 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting.
"Cheesman got it down in the first half, Thorn got it done in the second half, and we just had some struggles today," said Utah head coach Elaine Elliott, whose team falls to 23-6 on the year.
Shona Thorburn led Utah with 16 points and Mandie Little added 12. Freshman Kim Smith, the league's player of the year, struggled on 3-of-10 shooting and ended with just seven points.
In a game it never trailed, BYU opened up an 11-point lead in as many minutes to start the first half. Utah slowly whittled the deficit down to just two in the final minutes before BYU took a 28-24 halftime lead.
With Thorn held to a single 3-pointer in the first half, Cheesman picked up the scoring slack with 11 points on a free throw and a perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the floor — a broad range of inside work and longer jumpshots.
And with the Utes' 35.7 percent field-goal shooting nearly 20 percent less than the Cougars in the half, Lana Sitterud came in and sank two 3s and eight points total to lead Utah early.
In the second half, Thorn took over with 27 points, connected on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor (including 2-of-4 from behind the arc) and all 11 attempts from the line. She scored BYU's final 15 points over the last 4:10 of the game.
Once again, Utah chipped away at BYU's lead early, drawing to within one at 41-40 with less than 12 minutes to play, thanks to a Thorburn trey and two free throws by Sitterud.
But BYU ran off a 10-2 spurt over the next four-plus minutes, with a three-point play by Thorn, an underneath basket by Ashleigh Chamberlain, a trey and fast-break layup by Nelson. Utah would draw no closer than seven the rest of the way.
For the second straight day Judkins was reminding anyone within earshot that he thought his senior guard should have been selected MWC player of the year, rather than Utah freshman Kim Smith, who led the Utes to the regular season championship.
"I think Erin proved to the media and everybody else that she deserved the MVP," he said.
Elliott simply passed off the comment. "Jeff says a lot of things," she countered tersely.
NOTES: BYU is now 4-0 all-time in MWC Tournament semifinal games, while Utah is 1-2 in the semifinals . . . The Cougars were the only team to shoot above 50 percent against the Utes this season, hitting 53.1 percent back in a regular-season meeting earlier this month and 57.4 percent Friday . . . BYU set a tournament record with 11 steals against Utah . . . The Cougars outrebound the Utes for the first time this season, 32-23; BYU was led by Ambrosia Anderson's seven boards; Utah's Thorburn had a game-high eight.