LAS VEGAS — For a program that’s comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field, there’s plenty at stake for the No. 17 BYU women’s basketball team as it tips off play in the West Coast Conference Tournament.

The No. 1 seeded Cougars, who captured the outright regular season conference title, face No. 4 Portland Monday (1 p.m., MST, BYUtv) in the semifinals at Orleans Arena.

BYU (25-2) is highly motivated to add a tournament crown to its resume — and it is looking to earn a top-16 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Teams receiving a No. 4 seed or better in the Big Dance could host first-round games.

For now, the Cougars are projected as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

“We want another championship and make this season as special as it can be. We also have something to prove here,” said senior center Sara Hamson.

“We want to do really well in this tournament to hopefully get that top-16 ranking and hopefully host (in the NCAA Tournament). To have a chance at that would be phenomenal. That’s one of our big goals. We don’t have direct control over that but we want to do our best to make that more likely.”

“We want to go out and prove what we really deserve,” said guard Shaylee Gonzales, the WCC Player of the Year.

BYU also has an opportunity to avenge its only league loss. The Cougars, who posted a 15-1 mark in WCC play, lost at Portland 75-64 on Feb. 3. 

The Pilots (19-9) beat Loyola Marymount 69-44 in the WCC Tournament quarterfinals Saturday. 

“We’re pretty excited. We love tournaments; we love challenges,” Hamson said. “We’re really hoping to play Portland again and get a little bit of revenge.

“We’ll take whoever comes and we’ll take it to them. Our team thrives on competition. We’re very competitive and we’re really excited.”

By virtue of earning a triple bye all the way to the semifinals, BYU hasn’t played in more than a week, when it defeated Pacific 82-52 on Feb. 26.  

Could an extended break interrupt any momentum that the Cougars have built?

BYU ranks first in the league in scoring (79.2 ppg) and second in defense (58.0 ppg). The Cougars have outscored opponents by 23.7 points per 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,” said coach Jeff Judkins.

“That semifinal game will be hard because we don’t practice on Sundays, so we can’t go in the arena, and 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.”

Hamson said having a long layoff is “mostly positive. It’s a long season and it’s a good chance for us to rest up and get treatment and give our bodies a bit of a break.

“That’s really healthy for us. I don’t think we’ll be less sharp. If anything, it will be us being too anxious to get started. We’re super hyped for the tournament.”

Judkins said his team has dealt with navigating extended layoffs this season due to COVID.

“We’ve got a week off, but we have the same problem when we go to the NCAA Tournament, so it’s kind of a good thing,” he said.

“We had to do it this year. We had three weeks where we played only one game with COVID. We’re kind of used to it. Our team’s been able to figure that out a little bit.”

A year ago, BYU advanced to the WCC Tournament championship game only to fall in heartbreaking fashion to Gonzaga on a buzzer-beater by Jill Townsend. 

No, the Cougars haven’t forgotten that painful loss. Now, they’re seeking some redemption by adding a WCC Tournament title to their NCAA Tournament resume. 

“Last year we left some things not quite how we wanted them. We don’t want to do that again,” Hamson said.

“For us four seniors, this is our last chance at it. We don’t want to leave any regrets on the court. We want to finish with a bang.”

A win Monday over Portland would send BYU to the championship game Tuesday afternoon. Gonzaga and San Francisco meet in the other semifinal game Monday.

WCC Tournament

No. 4 Portland (19-9) vs. No. 1 BYU (25-2)

Monday, 1 p.m. MST

Orleans Arena

Las Vegas


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