ANN ARBOR, Michigan — For the past year, the BYU women’s basketball team had been pointing toward this NCAA Tournament and looking forward to a deep run.

The Cougars exceeded expectations during a historic regular season. They won a program- record 26 games, dominated the West Coast Conference, earned the outright regular season championship, rose to their highest ranking (No. 15) in the Associated Press poll and received a program-best No. 6 seed in the Big Dance.

But it all ended abruptly Saturday afternoon at the Crisler Center, where BYU fell 61-57 to No. 11 Villanova in the Big Dance.

“This game will stay with me for a while,” said coach Jeff Judkins, who just completed his 21st season at the helm.

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What will Judkins remember most when he looks back on the memorable 2021-22 campaign? 

“I’m going to look back and say, you know, what a great season — 26-4, win the conference, be ranked as long as we did, have a chance for the conference tournament and lose to a good Gonzaga team. Played a really good team, Villanova. Played right down to the wire,” he said. “As it gets going I’ll look back and remember the good things we had this year. They were a fun team to coach. 

“As a coach, you don’t always get that. Sometimes your teams are hard to motivate, hard to get them to do the things you want them to. This team was the opposite. They were easy to motivate, they worked hard, they did whatever it took for this team to be successful. It’s going to be hard,” Judkins added.

“I’m going to go back and say we need to practice and there won’t be any practice. So that’s the hard part. The tournament, one team comes out smiling; everybody else loses, and it’s tough. But that’s what makes winning and what makes success I guess so important, is when you lose, it doesn’t feel good and it hurts, so you drive yourself to do your best.”

After the disappointing setback against Villanova, Judkins is optimistic about next season.

“I think we have a big future,” he said. “The freshmen are very talented. You’ll see next year. They’re different, but they will come in and do what we need them to do.”

Of course, BYU will lose a handful of seniors who will leave a big void — Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham, Mario Albiero, and Sara Hamson, who were so integral to the Cougars’ success this season. 

Judkins praised the seniors, “who sacrificed coming back, willing to do whatever it takes to reach the goal which we all wanted to do, and that is to win a national championship,” he said. “I’m really proud of them and the way that they did everything the right way and set a great example to all the younger kids on the team of what’s expected at BYU and what we want.”

Harding, who finished with a team-high 21 points in her final game as a Cougar, will treasure her memories. 

“This season has meant the world to me. This has been such a fun season,” she said. “And then on top of that, this program is amazing. I couldn’t have asked to go to any other college and have this experience.

“I’ve been able to be brought up as a young freshman into this aspiring and intelligent and great young woman and be able to really perform on the basketball court because of this program, because of the university I went to and because of my coaches helping me, pushing me, having confidence in me. And so this whole experience has meant everything to me. These girls are something special. I don’t think you can find another team in this nation that is as close, tight-knit, and loving as mine is.”

Harding finished her career with 1,915 points, No. 6 on the program’s all-time scoring list. She hit 217 career 3-pointers, which is No. 7 all-time in program history. 

“Her strength and her endurance is amazing,” Judkins said of Harding. “These are the games she’s always played well in because of that. She’s a kid that works really hard and she says what she feels. I think it’s been really positive for a lot of the young kids to really see that.

“You know, when you have one of your best players work the hardest, it really sets the tone for what this team is all about. Paisley got better every year. There is not a lot of players you can say that about, but you can say that with her. She improved in every part of her game. I just wish she would’ve been 6-foot instead of 5-8. Would’ve made a big difference. But she is one the best. She’s one the best that I’ve coached. She’s proven that in both NCAA games and really big games. I thought (Saturday) she played one of her best games for us.”

“The season ended up being shorter than we wanted it to be, but at the end of the day we made memories we’ll keep forever and friends we’re just going to just live with forever.” — Sara Hamson

Hamson is grateful for the opportunity to play with her teammates the past several seasons.

“Just the culture on this team is unique. I’ve grown up playing all sorts of sports and been on so many teams. This team is just so full of love and just we’re willing to push each other in practice and compete, but at the end of the day we still enjoy being around each other,” she said.

“The season ended up being shorter than we wanted it to be, but at the end of the day we made memories we’ll keep forever and friends we’re just going to just live with forever.”

Now that the season is over, Judkins will begin the process of preparing for next year. 

He said he’ll talk to the returning players “and kind of go through what we want to accomplish next season and talk about where we were this year, how close we were to making the goals we wanted. And then hopefully talk to them about things they need to improve to make this team better.”

Judkins said he hopes the young players will take notice of how players like Harding and Hamson improved every season they were part of the program. 

“They worked on something of their weakness and got better,” he said. “And I hope the young kids that are here will see the same and will be able to focus on that. I think we set a good tone for what is expected and what we want to achieve.”

Meanwhile, Judkins will begin to mold next year’s team, which will include the reigning WCC Player of the Year, Shaylee Gonzales, and forward Lauren Gustin. 

“I’m going to have to look as a coach and see what can I do to help this team with the players I have coming back. What I can do, what’s going to fit their personalities, talents and all that. That’s the hard part of coaching,” he said.

“You have a great team and you worked hard with them, and now they are graduating and now you’re kind of starting over a little bit. But I think they set a really good foundation of what we need to do with our basketball program.”