Why BYU women’s basketball team is embracing the ‘underdog mindset’
While it marks the Cougars’ best NCAA Tournament seed in program history, it seemed Cougars deserved better based on what program accomplished
Despite posting a program-best 26-3 record, dominating the West Coast Conference in the regular season, playing a challenging nonconference schedule with multiple victories over Power Five opponents, checking in at No. 11 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and earning a program-high No. 15 ranking by The Associated Press, the BYU women’s basketball team received a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
While it marks the Cougars’ best seed in program history, it seemed they deserved better, based on what they’ve accomplished in 2021-22.
Before falling to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament championship game, BYU was in contention to be a top-16 overall seed and host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 6 BYU (26-3)
vs. No. 11 Villanova (23-8)
Saturday, 11 a.m. MDT
Ann Arbor, Michigan
TV: ESPN News
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
Instead, on Selection Sunday, the Cougars were fell to a No. 6 seed and they are being dispatched to a regional two time zones away.
Still, as BYU faces No. 11 seed Villanova Saturday (11 a.m. MDT, ESPNU) in a first-round matchup at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it knows that at this point, it’s not about seeding and site, it’s about winning and advancing.
“The biggest thing is, our team is so competitive. We just want to win,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “The biggest edge we have is how competitive we are and how much we want to win. The seeds matter less to us because we care more about winning than where we’re seeded or who we go against.”
The Cougars feel like they have a lot to prove.
“Losing the game (against Gonzaga) is more upsetting than feeling that they were a No. 5 seed,” Judkins said. “They wanted to win everything in our conference this year. That bothers them the most.
“They thought we’d be a No. 5. We’re in a good position where we can win those games. That’s all that matters to them. … We’re in a good spot. It’s the highest that BYU has ever been. That’s a real positive thing for us. ... But we’ve got to worry about Villanova and take care of that.”
“This whole year, we’ve been doing big things for this program,” said guard Tegan Graham. “Going forward, we’re just going to have the mindset of one game at a time and competing as best as we can. I don’t know that anyone’s necessarily disappointed. I think everyone’s just super excited for what’s ahead.”
BYU is not only confident because of its body of work this season, it’s also confident because of what it achieved last year.
The Cougars dropped a heartbreaker to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament in 2021, and they were sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Much to BYU’s delight, it received an invitation to the Big Dance and received a No. 11 seed.
“It gave us a second chance,” said assistant coach Melanie Day. “We thought the season was over. I thought there was no way, according to the metrics, that we were getting into the tournament last year.
“When we were watching the selection show, not everyone was there. Some people went to class or other places. It was a Monday. There was a group of us in there. Paisley (Harding) was filming it. When we were announced, it was chaos. It was crazy. I don’t think any of us thought we would go. It was like our second chance, especially after that loss. You saw how devastating that was. They didn’t want that feeling again.”
The Cougars responded to their second chance by upsetting No. 6 Rutgers in the first round.
In that game, Harding broke her hand but she played in the next game against No. 3 Arizona. The Cougars nearly knocked off the Wildcats, who went on to fall in the national championship game to Stanford.
“Last year, after watching us lose to Arizona, which went to the national championship game — if Paisley’s healthy, we win that game. That gave them the belief. That’s so powerful. The belief in yourself because they saw it,” Day said. “They see what Arizona did. It flipped a switch. They realized that they can go to the Final Four. ‘We can do that.’
“I think that’s why we’ve been so good this year. It’s that belief in ourselves and knowing what our potential could be. Had we lost in the first round, I don’t know if we have that belief. I don’t know if we would have been as good as we’ve been.”
That belief carried over into this season and the Cougars held themselves to high expectations.
“I’ve believed that since Day 1, the first game we tipped off this season, I think we can play against anyone,” Harding said. “We can put up a good fight against anyone. I’m excited to show the nation that. BYU is considered an underdog and I love that. I love the underdog story. America loves the underdog story. I’m excited to go in there and play like underdogs.”
“All season, we’ve kind of had a chip on our shoulder. … Our team’s pretty level-headed when it comes to rankings,” Graham said. “We’re used to being the underdogs. I think it’s always a healthy mindset to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. We’re not underdogs (in the WCC) but we get everybody’s best game. In that regard, it’s healthy to have an underdog mindset.”
The Cougars’ experience in the NCAA Tournament last season could be a boon. Harding is one of the players that decided to come back for another season, for another chance to compete in the Big Dance.
“They know what it is and what you have to do and how you prepare for it and what things that we’re going to work on. They’re very motivated right now,” Judkins said. “This is why they came back, for this opportunity. I know they’re ready and I know they’ll be focused. We’ve got to hit shots. We didn’t shoot the ball very well in the (WCC) tournament. It’s something we’ve been working on.”
Graham said her team can take a lot away from last year’s tournament experience that can be applied to this year’s tournament.
“Just a lot of composure. I can bring a bit of that composure and experience. And excitement, too. It’s such a joy, and there should be so much gratitude and excitement to be playing in March with such an amazing group of women and coaches. It’s really fun and it should be fun. Going forward, that’s really important to make sure we keep remembering why we play in March.”
Regardless of seedings and site, Harding is grateful to have an opportunity to participate in the NCAA Tournament again after she took advantage of the NCAA granting an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
“This year is such a blessing to even be able to play. If COVID hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here right now. It’s a blessing that I still get to lace up my shoes and play with these girls every single day,” she said. “This tournament, it’s my last hurrah, my last dance for me here in college. It’s going to be a good experience and I’m just going to try to soak it up as much as I can and make the most memories that I can.”
Judkins said BYU’s loss to Gonzaga is in the rearview mirror and his team is only looking ahead.
“The first day (after losing to the Zags), they were sad. The second day, it was a little bit better,” he said. “The third day, they were happy and excited for the tournament. We’re excited to be here. This is what we wanted. This is what we aim for.”
This is the Cougars’ chance, in the NCAA Tournament, to validate to the country what they accomplished in the regular season.