LOS ANGELES — A 17-point lead almost proved insufficient in BYU's attempt to extend its most productive women's basketball season in school history.
After dominating the first half, the 12th-seeded Cougars survived a near collapse in the second half to defeat fourth-seeded Nebraska, 80-76, Monday night in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
The victory enabled BYU (28-6) to make history for the second consecutive game. Saturday night, the Cougars set a single-season school record for victories by beating fifth-seeded North Carolina State in the first round.
By defeating the Cornhuskers (26-7), BYU becomes just the third No. 12 seed in NCAA history to reach the Sweet 16 of the women's tournament. The University of San Francisco was the first in 1996, followed by Kansas last year.
The Cougars will be making their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2002.
"It shows just how much hard work pays off," said BYU forward Morgan Bailey, who tied her career best with 18 points. "I know how much all of us worked this summer in the weight room, conditioning and getting up shots. It's just great to see that all this is paying off, finally."
The Cougars' next opponent either will be Connecticut — the nation's top-ranked team — or St. Joseph's. Those two teams play in the second round Tuesday.
"We're praying like crazy that St. Joe's wins," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said humorously.
Ironically, BYU's next game will be in Lincoln, Neb., at the Cornhuskers' home court: Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Cougars appeared to secure their berth after building a 37-20 lead with 3:44 left in the first half. Bailey scored 12 points in the half, as BYU made 15 of 28 shots.
Defensively, Jennifer Hamson grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots in the first half, while Kim Beeston stifled Nebraska's leading scorer, Jordan Hooper, the Big Ten Player of the Year. Hooper, a two-time All American, entered the game averaging 20.4 points.
But with Beeston chasing her around the court in a man-to-man defense, Hooper missed 4 of 5 field goal attempts and scored just five points — three on free throws.
An 8-0 spurt enabled the Cornhuskers to narrow their deficit to 37-28 with 1:16 before halftime. Then in the second half, Nebraska drew within 53-52 with 10:22 to play on Hailie Sample's two free throws — courtesy of Hamson's fourth personal foul.
BYU extended its advantage to 69-57 with 6:21 to play, however, and held a 75-66 lead with 1:14 remaining when Nebraska made one final push.
Tear'a Laudermill made a lay-in, converted the ensuing free throw after getting fouled, and added a 3-point basket in a 26-second span to close the margin to 75-72 with 42.7 seconds left. Then Hamson made the offensive play of the game.
Lexi Eaton drove to the basket for a lay-in but the ball slipped out of her hands. Hamson secured it and banked in a shot while getting fouled. Hamson's free throw gave BYU a 78-72 lead with 13.6 seconds left.
"She loves to get through and score," Hamson said of Eaton, who finished with 15 points. "I was just there in case she didn't quite make it. It ended up bounding off a defender right into my hands. I do what I try to do best."
Laudermill responded with two more free throws, then stole the ball from Stephanie Rovetti and passed to Emily Cady for a lay-in that cut the margin to 78-76 with 4.4 seconds to go. But Hamson's two free throws with 2.8 seconds left ensured the victory.
"In a game with so much on the line, it's easy to get rattled when things aren't going your way," Bailey said. "But we've learned to get out of that faster. I think this team has grown up since the beginning of the season."
Hamson finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Xojian Harry came off the bench to add 11 points. Laudermill led all scorers with 22 points, while Hooper finished with 20.