LAS VEGAS — The top-seeded BYU women’s basketball team enjoyed an ideal start in Tuesday’s West Coast Conference championship game.
But it ended in bitter disappointment for the Cougars.
No. 6 seed San Francisco rallied from a 15-point first-quarter deficit, took its first lead with 17.2 seconds left and held on to knock off BYU 70-68.
With the win, the Dons won their first WCC tournament title since 1997 and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“This has been a great season. Not everything goes perfectly all the time in life,” said Cougar coach Jeff Judkins. “We played really well this week but in the last couple of minutes we didn’t execute like we normally do. We’ve probably done it 26 times right. Tonight, we didn’t do what we needed to do at the end.”
WCC Player of the Year Lexi Rydalch helped BYU (26-6) to a 10-0 lead. She scored the Cougars’ first eight points, including a 3-pointer to open the game as she become the league’s all-time leading scorer for both men and women, eclipsing late Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers.
Toward the end of the first quarter, the Cougars took their biggest lead, 26-11, and they were rolling.
But USF (21-11) clawed back gradually, pulling to within one point, 55-54, with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
In the final and decisive period, the Dons outscored BYU 16-10.
The Cougars led 68-67 with 49 seconds left when USF’s Taylor Proctor, who scored a game-high 27 points and was voted the WCC tournament MVP, missed a free throw and her teammate, Zhane Dikes, grabbed the rebound. On that play, Rydalch fouled Dikes, picked up her fifth foul and was forced to the bench for the rest of the game.
Later, with 17.2 seconds left, Dikes, who finished with 21 points, knocked down a pair of free throws to give the Dons their first lead of the game, 69-68.
With 12 seconds remaining, and without Rydalch as an option, Judkins drew up a play. Kristine Nielson missed a 3-pointer and Proctor rebounded the ball and made a free throw with 8.9 seconds left.
The Cougars turned the ball over as time ran out.
“Wow. What a game. Our team fought so hard tonight,” said USF coach Jennifer Azzi. “BYU’s an incredible program, an amazing team. When you get down 10-0 you go, ‘Oh no.’”
Not that Azzi was necessarily surprised by what her team was able to do.
“You do have to have luck to get to this point,” she said. “This is what we’ve wanted for years. So I don’t think any of us are actually shocked by it because it’s been what we’ve been working towards. But certainly, the stars have to be aligned.”
Rydalch, who scored 23 points on 7 of 21 shooting, said the Cougars didn’t do a good job with a big lead.
“I think it’s hard to handle that, especially in a championship game,” she said. "There’s a lot of emotions. We kind of had a letdown and San Francisco got back in it.”
BYU’s Kalani Purcell scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds and Makenzi Pulsipher had 14 points.
Going into the tournament, Judkins said he didn’t want to leave his team’s postseason fate in the hands of the NCAA tournament committee. But he’s confident that the Cougars have done enough to merit an at-large bid.
“I think we’ll get in. We’re No. 14 RPI. We won our conference by two games,” he said. “We got to the finals and lost on last-second foul shots. What hurts is, we had a great season like this. These guys have been awesome to coach. As a coach, you want it more for them than for you. You know how hard they’ve worked. They had a chance for a championship in the regular-season and the tournament and to lose this is hard. But these girls will bounce back. They’re champions. They’re fighters and I know they’ll come back and be ready to go.”
Rydalch and Purcell were named to the WCC All-Tournament team along with Santa Clara’s Lori Parkinson (a Cyprus High product) and USF’s Proctor and Dikes.