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Worth the wait: BYU women receive No. 7 seed, face No. 10 Missouri in NCAA tournament

PROVO — The BYU women’s basketball team had to wait an excruciatingly long time to find out its NCAA tournament fate.

For starters, the Cougars had to wait a whole week since being upset by San Francisco in the West Coast Conference tournament. Then, on Selection Monday, they had to wait even longer — until the final bracket was revealed on ESPN.

BYU was relieved, and thrilled, to learn it is a No. 7 seed and will meet No. 10 Missouri in Austin, Texas Saturday (4:30 p.m., MST, ESPN2) in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“I was nervous. I saw some teams that got in that I knew we had a better record and a better RPI,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “But you never know. We waited until the last bracket. It would have been a lot easier being the first. But I’m happy. I think we got what we deserved.”

The Cougars are eager to take the court again after squandering a 15-point first-half lead against San Francisco and failing to earn WCC's automatic berth.

“This has been the longest week,” Judkins said. “I think the reason is, we knew we were the best team and we should have won it. We didn’t do what we needed to do. The fastest way of getting that taste out of your mouth is to play. We had to wait around and it’s been tough. It was good to practice (Monday) to practice hard and get back to what we need to do.”

The Cougars (26-6) claimed the WCC regular-season championship and boasts a lofty RPI, but due to the loss to USF, there were no guarantees that they would get into the Big Dance.

“I was really nervous. I think I was more nervous watching that than how nervous I get in the games,” said senior guard Kylie Maeda. “They made us wait until the last minute. But we’re just excited to be in and excited to play again.”

This marks BYU’s third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, which includes reaching the Sweet 16 in 2014. It is the Cougars’ 12th all-time NCAA tournament appearance and their No. 7 seed ties for their program’s best seed all-time.

“If we would have won the (WCC) tournament, we would have been a little higher,” Judkins said of the seeding. “I feel really good about playing Missouri. I’ve seen them play a little bit. It will be a good matchup for us. Consistency is a big part of being picked in the NCAA. The schedule we played was a big risk. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But it paid off for this team. Thank goodness I had good enough players to really take that challenge and do it.”

“Seeding matters and matchup matters,” said guard Lexi Rydalch, the WCC Player of the Year. “When you get a good matchup, it puts you in a good position.”

The Missouri Tigers (21-9) are headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade and they finished with an 8-8 record in the Southeastern Conference. The winner of the BYU-Missouri showdown Saturday will face the winner of No. 2 Texas — which is hosting the regional — and No. 15 Alabama State next Monday.

In the Sweet 16 two years ago, BYU was bounced from the NCAA tournament by powerhouse UConn in game that saw the Cougars give the Huskies a rare close game. Once again, the Cougars find themselves in the same bracket with the top-seeded UConn, which has won eight consecutive NCAA titles.

“We’ve already experienced UConn, so we’d like to meet them later if we can,” said Rydalch, who will be playing in her fourth NCAA tournament, the most of any BYU women’s player in history. "We’re not afraid. We’re excited with where we’re at … We gave (UConn a good game (two years ago). We’re confident in our abilities. We’re ready to come out fists flying for any team.”

Rydalch is eager to redeem herself after the setback to USF.

“That last loss hurt a lot,” she said. “We’re excited to have another chance to play in March Madness.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com