ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Halfway through the first quarter of its NCAA Tournament game Saturday, No. 6 seeded BYU looked like a hungry, aggressive team primed to advance to the next round.

The Cougars opened with a 13-2 lead on No. 11 Villanova, but that was about as good as it got for BYU.

Over the next 35 minutes, the Wildcats outmuscled and outhustled the Cougars and, in the end, they pulled a 61-57 upset at the Crisler Center.

And with that, BYU’s historic season came to an abrupt and bitter end.

“They got real physical, started busting through screens harder, started knocking us around the post, and … it seemed like we didn’t fight back as well as we needed to,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins.

“We kind of got hit and then we kind of stopped. There were a lot of conversations in the timeout, (that) we’ve got to compete, get out there, we’ve got to be stronger. We can’t be so careless with the ball. They did a good job really helping us off screens, especially once that point hit, and that kind of got us out of rhythm.”

In the first half, the Cougars (26-4) uncharacteristically started coughing up the ball and had 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. On the day, Wildcat guard Lucy Olsen recorded six steals against BYU. 

“I think we came out super aggressive, especially on defense. We took them out of the things they thought they would be able to get pretty easy, but then I think they turned on the heat,” said BYU guard Paisley Harding, who finished with a team-high 21 points.

“They started pressing a little bit more, getting more in our passing lanes. We just made some careless turnovers, which I think that’s pretty much us just beating ourselves right there in that little stretch in the first quarter.”

Meanwhile, Villanova star Maddy Siegrist, who entered the day ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring at 25.9 points per game, finished with a game-high 25 points.

The Big East Player of the Year scored 19 of those points in the second half after starting 1 of 8 from the field. 

“Villanova went to their star,” Judkins said of Siegrist. “In the second half they ran everything through her, and she’s a great player and she made some plays tonight that as a coach you try to double her, but she’s quick enough to get her shot off fast enough that you can’t get there.”

Added Sara Hamson: ”We came in knowing she’s their leading scorer and we were really locked in the first half, and then she adjusted.

“She turned it up a couple notches and really went off. Kudos to her. She played a really great game.”

In the second half, Siegrist put her team on her shoulders. 

“For Mad, it was really just a matter of settling in and seeing what was happening out there and then just feeling the game,” said Villanova coach Denise Dillon.

“I think she’s done a tremendous job of that this season.”

3 keys in BYU’s 61-57 NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova

While Villanova (24-8) seemed to get stronger, BYU faded. 

The Cougars were never out of the game — their largest deficit was seven points — but they struggled to seize the momentum and maintain a lead.

After making just 4 of 13 shots in the third quarter, BYU battled back from a 55-48 deficit with a little more than five minutes remaining thanks to a 7-1 run.

Harding buried a jumper and Lauren Gustin scored a layup. Then with 2:19 remaining, Tegan Graham hit a 3-pointer that pulled the Cougars to within 56-55.

Then Siegrist responded with a big bucket with just under two minutes left.

In the final minute, Harding missed a contested layup, Hamson scored a layup to make it 58-57 for the Wildcats and Siegrist knocked down two free throws with 16.2 seconds on the clock to make it 60-57. 

“We had our chances,” Judkins said. “We had some good opportunities … We’ve been there before. Played a lot of physical teams and we just had opportunities that we just didn’t make a couple plays right there when we needed to.”

Siegrist made a huge play on the defensive end, blocking Graham’s potentially game-tying 3-point attempt with nine seconds left.

“With the block, I can’t give up any 3s to No. 10,” Siegrist said. “She already hit one in my face, so I knew she wasn’t going to get a 3 off.”

BYU switched to a zone defense in the final minutes of the game, something Judkins wished he had done sooner.

Villanova made just 6 of 26 from 3-point range.

“It’s bad on my part. I watched them play and they tore zones apart. I just thought, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do it.’ I should have zoned earlier and at least tried to get them out of rhythm,” Judkins said.

“We got ahead and they caught us and went back and forth and they made a little run. The zone got them out of their motion. Probably should have done that more.”

The Cougars finished the regular season having won 25 of 27 games, proving to be one of the best offensive teams in the country. But BYU lost two of their final three contests, including a setback to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship game. 

A common denominator for BYU in those three postseason games? Well, poor shooting doomed the Cougars. They shot 39% against Villanova after shooting 35% against Portland and 32% against Gonzaga. BYU scored 59, 59 and 57 points, respectively, in its final three games. 

“I think teams get physical, more physical in tournaments, and I think that gets you off a little bit,” Judkins said. “I think another thing, and it’s a small thing, but it’s affected us ... your whole year you shoot with a certain ball, and then you go into the tournament and shoot a completely different ball.

“I don’t know if other teams practice with those balls all year. I guarantee we will next year. We will practice with those basketballs all year, because there is a different feel.”

Judkins also praised Villanova’s ability to defend. 

“Just seemed like we were a little bit off. You have to give the defense a lot of credit for that. They pushed us off the line, they rushed us,” he said.

“We have to shoot the ball good. We did the whole year. These last three games were the worst we shot all year, and you can’t do that when you get into tournaments.”

Again, the Wildcats set the tone early after a rough start. Down 13-2, Villanova responded with a 16-4 run to take its first lead, 18-17, with 8:04 left in the second quarter.

During that spurt, Kaitlyn Orihel came off the bench to score 10 of those points. 

“Didn’t come out executing great, but found a way,” Dillon said. “Talked to the team about making it a possession game, and they did just that and found a way to come up with a huge win here in the tournament.”

Judkins said one of the turning points in the first half was when guard Maria Albiero was whistled for her second personal foul, which put more responsibility on guard Shaylee Gonzales, who shot 3 of 14 from the floor and finished with eight points, eight assists and five turnovers.

“Really hurt us,” he said of Albiero’s foul trouble. “Maria was doing a good job keeping the tempo.

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“When Maria comes out, what happens is the ball gets in Shaylee’s hand, and Shaylee is a good ball handler, but she is not used to doing it all the time.”

So the Cougars, who won a program-record 26 games, captured the outright WCC regular season championship, earned their highest Associated Press ranking and received their best seeding ever in the Big Dance — among other notable accomplishments — are going home, while the Wildcats will face No. 3 seeded Michigan Monday. 

“I want to congratulate Villanova. They played a really good game. Give them a lot of credit and wish them the best,” Judkins said.

”I want to thank my team for an incredible season. They go 26-4, and to be able to compete at the highest level and be able to hang in there and do the things with up and down parts of life and the season, I’m very proud of them.”

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