The Brigham Young-led pioneers trekked west to be left alone. One hundred and seventy-five years later, BYU’s women’s basketball team is headed east to stir up some attention. The irony is everywhere.
Entering the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young is said to have uttered those famous words, “this is the right place, drive on!” For the pioneers, and all those who have followed, he was right.
When BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins marches his Cougars into Chrysler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Saturday, he must brandish the same attitude. “This is the right place to win national respect, drive on!”
Even during a season where BYU (26-3) earned its highest ranking (No. 15) and highest NCAA Tournament seeding (No. 6) in program history, the Cougars continue to hit the wall of regionalization as a band of ball players tucked away in the Rocky Mountains and hidden in the West Coast Conference.
The only way to change the national perspective moving forward is to leave Michigan with two victories. They must defeat No. 11 seed Villanova on Saturday and most likely No. 3 seed Michigan on their home floor Monday.
It’s an ominous challenge, but for a program that has made a case as the best women’s team in school history, winning now is a must. It’s the only way to blast through the glass ceiling that separates their regional reputation from national admiration.
Judkins tried to do it through scheduling. The Cougars defeated P5 programs Arizona State and Washington State in Provo, and No. 17 Florida State, No. 22 West Virginia and rival Utah on the road. Their lone nonconference defeat was at Oklahoma, a 99-91 overtime setback in a game where Paisley Harding, the No. 6 all-time scorer in school history, shot 3 of 17 from the field.
Washington State, West Virginia, Utah and Oklahoma all made the tournament.
BYU went 15-1 in the WCC. Its only loss was at Portland. The Cougars swept Gonzaga during the regular season before falling to the Bulldogs in the WCC tournament championship. Gonzaga also reached the tournament field.
Despite BYU’s success, the Cougars climbed no higher than No. 15 in the AP Top 25 and while a No. 6 seed is unprecedented, Judkins’ crew made a strong case for it to be better. BYU’s regional respect, however, seems to die each year at the Continental Divide.
Along the way, Judkins earned WCC Coach of the Year honors. Sophomore Shaylee Gonzales was named AP Honorable Mention All-America and WCC Player of the Year. Sophomore Lauren Gustin led the league in rebounds and is No. 8 nationally in offensive rebounds. Harding earned WCC First Team honors and Sara Hamson climbed to No. 2 all-time in blocked shots at BYU.
It’s no secret out West that BYU is a women’s basketball powerhouse with Gonzales and Gustin each having two more years of eligibility. But what has kept the secret in the West is the Cougars’ lack of national tournament success. It might not be fair, but it’s the only way to change the narrative, both for this year’s team and future BYU squads.
Defeating No. 6 seed Rutgers last year in the first round and taking eventual national runner-up, 3-seed Arizona to the limit in the second round, was exciting for the program, but it wasn’t good enough to move the national needle. As a result, even with 26 wins, the Cougars have been kept at arm’s length from coast-to-coast acceptance. If they want a bear hug, they will need to beat the Wildcats and Wolverines in this year’s tournament to get it.
This year’s team shouts “Final Four” at the end of every huddle, both in practice and during games. Their eye is on a prize no other BYU team in school history has achieved.
Twice, in 2002 and 2016, the BYU women have reached the Sweet 16. BYU will need two wins in Ann Arbor to do it again and four wins overall to reach the Final Four. The team has a veteran coach, a solid starting five and a deep bench.
They may be the best BYU has ever had — but for any of this season to truly matter, by their own standard, winning in the tournament is paramount. Anything less will be a disappointment and will put the Cougars right back at square one for next season in their long quest for national respect.
Yes, BYU, Ann Arbor is the right place, drive on!
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.