LAS VEGAS — On the day that the BYU women’s basketball team received its highest Associated Press poll ranking in school history — No. 15 — the Cougars found themselves embroiled in a tough, physical game in the West Coast Conference semifinals Monday afternoon.

While the top-seeded Cougars had outscored their opponents by 23.7 points per game during the season, they trailed No. 4 Portland 46-42 with less than six minutes remaining. 

But BYU proved it can win close, pressure-packed games, too. 

Cougar senior Tegan Graham, who had been struggling with her shot in the game, buried a crucial 3-pointer with 5:31 left that jumpstarted a decisive 10-0 run, which was capped by another 3-pointer by Maria Albiero. 

From there, the Cougars hit seven of eight free throws over the final 46.7 seconds and hung on for a 59-52 victory over the Pilots — avenging the only WCC loss that BYU had suffered this season. 

“I like games like this. I’m a shooter,” Graham said. “Shooters shoot. I didn’t shoot that well tonight. But I have confidence in myself and I know my team does. I just got a good look at it and it felt good. I let it fly and made it. It was fun.”

“She hit that 3, and it took a little bit of momentum,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “She’s energetic and she’s confident as heck. She came down and she was open and she didn’t hesitate. And she took it. That’s how she’s been since I’ve coached her for two years. That rubs off on other players. We missed a lot of shots tonight that we usually don’t miss. … That’s what I love about this team, and Tegan especially. She loves pressure. She loves it. That was one of the biggest plays of the game, no question.”

Graham finished with a double-double — 11 points and 11 rebounds to go along with six assists and two blocks. 

Not only that, but she drew a tough defensive assignment on Portland’s Alex Fowler, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. 

“It’s one of the best defensive games I’ve ever seen from Tegan,” Judkins said. “Fowler’s a really good player.  She did a good job trying to stop her. She made things difficult for her. … It was a good team effort. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Fowler shot just 5 of 17 from the floor.

With the win, BYU (26-2) advanced to the WCC Tournament championship game Tuesday (2 p.m., MST, ESPNU) against No. 2 seeded Gonzaga. The Cougars swept the Zags during the regular season. 

Against Portland, WCC Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed six rebounds. Paisley Harding added 14 points. 

This was the matchup BYU wanted in the semifinals after it lost to the Pilots 75-64 at Portland on Feb. 3. 

“We definitely wanted to play Portland because they beat us. It feels really good to go and and win that game,” Gonzales said. “We knew that they would press us hard and we had the mentality that we had to overcome that. We did a great job at that.”

3 keys in BYU women’s 59-52 win over Portland in WCC semifinals

The Pilots, who pressed and played a matchup zone, gave the Cougars all they wanted. 

“Their press definitely gives us a lot of trouble,” Gonzales said. “When they press us, we get sped up and our offense gets a little bit stagnant. I feel like we did a good job of being composed and slowing it down to break it.”

Portland’s Maisie Burham scored a team-high 17 points and Lucy Cochrane had 12 points and eight blocks. 

“Portland played really well. They were very physical, very active,” Judkins said. “They went to a matchup zone, which we’ve not seen all year. It was nice that we finally figured it out. … You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”

BYU led 31-30 at halftime and at the end of the third quarter, the two teams were tied at 40 apiece. For the game, the Cougars shot 35% and the Pilots shot 32%. 

But BYU hit big shots down the stretch, like Albiero’s late 3 with 2:19 remaining.

“Maria had to bring the ball up on the press. She did a great job with that,” Judkins said. “When she hit that 3, what it made me feel as a coach was all the many times watching her in the Annex shooting and shooting and shooting. When the biggest moment came, she was ready and she took it. When she hit it, in my heart I said, ‘All that hard work paid off.’”

Over the final several minutes of the game, Gonzales credited her team’s demeanor. 

“We were composed,” she said.

Because the Cougars had earned a triple-bye to the semifinals, they hadn’t played a game in more than a week. They don’t practice on Sundays as per school policy, then they arrived at Orleans Arena at 7:30 a.m. Monday for a shootaround. It took BYU a little while to settle in, Judkins said. 

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“We missed some good looks that we usually knock in. I told these girls, and they took it to heart — defense wins championships because there are some nights the ball doesn’t go in,” he said. “You have to defend and we did that. They scored but we made them work for every single basket. That’s how this team knows how to win. They do whatever it takes for us to win.”

Graham was emblematic of that winning attitude Monday. 

“Tegan does a lot of things for this team. Scoring is part of it. She’s a great passer. Tonight, she rebounded. She had to. Fowler was inside a lot and she had to box her out,” Judkins said. “Tonight, she took the challenge at heart (defending Fowler). She took a lot of pressure with the press. She took the ball out and that’s pressure. But she enjoys it. She knows she missed some shots that she usually doesn’t miss. But she’s not afraid to take it. That’s where maturity comes in, being a five-year senior. She’s a joy to coach.”

Now the Cougars are one win away from a WCC Tournament title — and, perhaps, a top-16 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

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