It ranks up there as one of Jeff Judkins’ toughest losses in his 21 years as head coach of the BYU women’s basketball team. 

In last year’s West Coast Conference Tournament championship game in Las Vegas, the Cougars led top-seeded and No. 16-ranked Gonzaga almost the entire way. 

Then, with less than one second remaining, Jill Townsend’s jumper at the buzzer over BYU’s 6-foot-7 center Sara Hamson lifted the Zags to a 43-42 victory over the Cougars. 

It was a heartbreaking moment for BYU.

“It’s very, very frustrating to know that we lost off of a game-winner with .6 seconds left,” Cougar guard Shaylee Gonzales said after the loss. “But as a team, we need to realize that we need to buckle down. We need to take care of business. That’s what big teams do. We need to buckle down on defense and not let them score that.”

“That was one of the hardest losses I’ve had in a long time as a coach. The players remember it but they’ve told themselves that we’re not going to be in that position hopefully again.” — Jeff Judkins on loss to Gonzaga in WCC Tournament last season

BYU ended up receiving an NCAA Tournament berth. The Cougars beat Rutgers in the first round before being eliminated by Arizona, which ended up losing in the NCAA championship game. 

A year later, that loss to Gonzaga serves as a painful reminder — and a motivating factor.

“That was one of the hardest losses I’ve had in a long time as a coach,” Judkins recalled. “The players remember it but they’ve told themselves that we’re not going to be in that position hopefully again.”

BYU’s position right now as the WCC Tournament tips off this week is on top. The Cougars (25-2, 15-1), winners of the regular-season championship, are the No. 1 seed and as a reward for their efforts, they’ve earned a triple bye to the semifinals on Monday, March 7 (1 p.m. MST, BYUtv). 

And there could be a championship game rematch with No. 2 seed Gonzaga Tuesday afternoon. 

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After officially clinching the crown with an 82-52 win at Pacific last Saturday, BYU jumped two spots to No. 17 in The Associated Press poll released Monday. 

Since that devastating loss to the Zags, the Cougars have been on a tear, winning 26 of their last 29 games. 

BYU wants to win this year’s WCC Tournament and leave no doubt about how good it is. 

“We’re favored to win the tournament,” Judkins said. “We’re going to go out there with a lot of confidence and know that we can do that.”

The Cougars are projected as a No. 5 seed and perhaps their performance in the tournament will give them an even more favorable seed. Top four seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament are eligible to host the first and second rounds. 

For now, all of BYU’s focus is on winning the WCC Tournament. 

The Cougars won’t know their semifinal opponent until Saturday, but they could meet No. 4 Portland — the only WCC team to beat BYU this season. 

“It doesn’t really make a difference to us. We’d probably like to play Portland just because of what happened this year. We’ll get ourselves ready. We’ll buckle down and get ready for the tournament.” — BYU coach Jeff Judkins

“It doesn’t really make a difference to us,” Judkins said of potential opponents. “We’d probably like to play Portland just because of what happened this year. We’ll get ourselves ready. We’ll buckle down and get ready for the tournament.”

One of the challenges for the Cougars has to do with their long layoff. By the time BYU takes the floor at Orleans Arena, it will have been nine days since it had played a game.

“It’s hard not playing. The advantage of it is, if you’re fortunate enough to win the semifinal game, then you have enough legs to really play well in the finals,” Judkins said. “That semifinal game will be hard because we don’t practice on Sundays, so we can’t go in the arena, we can’t shoot. We’re going to have to get up really early on Monday morning to go shoot and get used to the arena.

“But the other side of the coin is, we get to rest our bodies … get some rest for these guys, work on things we need to get better at. Work on our shooting and things that can help us for the tournament.”

BYU head coach Jeff Judkins yells during a game against Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

BYU swept Gonzaga this season and the thought of trying to beat the Zags a third time is daunting. 

“What I’m hoping is that Gonzaga gets beat in the semifinals and we play somebody else. It’s really hard, especially when you win two. Sometimes when you split it’s a little bit easier,” Judkins said. “Sometimes matchups are really important. Certain teams match up better with other teams.

“As we get to the tournament, that’s what we’re hoping for, that the teams that we have to face are teams that we match up well with. I know right now, if this team plays like it can play, I don’t know how many teams can really beat us.”

Judkins is confident that the conference schedule has prepared his team well for what’s to come in the postseason. 

“We played a really good preseason (schedule). We took a risk and the risk paid off. We played top teams and won those games to give us the ranking. We came into conference with a bull’s-eye on our back,” he said. “We knew each team would give their best to us. We had some ups and downs, some injuries, some sickness, some different things that happened. And these guys hung together.

“Great leadership. I think the seniors, especially. They showed that this was important to them to win this conference. I know we’ll have the same attitude next week in the tournament.”

After winning the regular-season title last Saturday on the road, the Cougars celebrated by going to dinner and reflecting on what they’ve accomplished so far. 

Now, it’s all about preparing for the WCC Tournament. BYU has some unfinished business.

“We really want to win that tournament,” Judkins said, “and go into the NCAA Tournament with a high, and be playing our best basketball.”