Sitting at the podium at Orleans Arena after his team’s 71-59 loss to Gonzaga Tuesday in the West Coast Conference championship game, BYU coach Jeff Judkins became a little emotional.

Certainly the setback was disappointing, just a day after his team achieved its highest national ranking ever at No. 15.

“They put their effort in all the time. They showed it tonight,” Judkins said, his voice cracking. “When we were down, they didn’t give up. They kept playing and they kept trying. That’s worth more than any win, to see your team fight and compete.”

A year after losing a buzzer-beater to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament title game, BYU wanted to add a tournament championship to its resume, which already includes an outright regular-season crown. 

Now, the Cougars are hoping for a favorable seed on Selection Sunday. 

Why was Judkins so emotional after the loss to the Zags?

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“It’s emotional because the players wanted it. A lot of times in life, you don’t get everything, but you sure want it. I know how much our players wanted to win this conference tournament. Last year we lost in a heartbreaker,” he said. “We wanted to do it. I’m also crying because it’s one less game with my seniors. They’ve sacrificed so much for this team.

“I’m so proud of these guys and what we’ve accomplished so far. Nobody thought we’d be where we are, but they did. We’ll do our best to represent our university and this conference in the NCAA Tournament and hopefully make everyone proud.”

The Cougars (26-3) haven’t tasted defeat often this season. 

“We’ll learn from it. We have a lot of opportunities to learn throughout the year but not a lot of opportunities to learn off losses this year. That’s kind of a blessing in this,” said guard Paisley Harding. “We get to find our weaknesses and learn from them. Our team has a lot of fight and competitiveness. I’m not worried about us. When we practice on Thursday, we’ll come in as we always do and work our butts off.”

Going into the week, there was a lot of talk about BYU possibly earning a top-16 overall seed and possibly hosting the first two rounds. That probably won’t happen now. 

Where does Judkins see his team being seeded Sunday?

“I think we’re a fifth or a sixth (seed) now. If we would have won this, maybe a fourth. I think we’d earned it,” he said. “You don’t go by one week and decide what teams are seeded.”

Judkins added that the Cougars will try to make the best of whatever seed it receives.

“It doesn’t make a difference for us,” he said. “We want to get in a good situation where we match up well with our opponent.”

Harding is looking forward to the NCAA Tournament. 

“Our team is so competitive … We’ve been here before. We’ve been to the NCAA Tournament before. It’s going to be a fun time,” she said. “We have a lot of high hopes for ourselves and a lot of expectations.

“We are a relentless team that just continues to fight every single day. We were down double digits and we were still fighting. I’m not too worried about us.”

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Last year, after the devastating loss to Gonzaga, BYU bounced back to defeat Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars lost in the next round to Arizona, which advanced to the NCAA championship game.

Judkins knows the best way to get over a tough loss is to focus on the next game.  

“It’s going to take the first game we win in the NCAA Tournament, I’ll forget this game,” he said. “The NCAA is what you fight for and you want to be part of it. Last year we lost (in the WCC championship game) and we won our first NCAA game. I didn’t think about the loss, we were so excited to win that game.”

Tuesday’s loss shouldn’t detract from what’s been an amazing season for BYU. It still has a chance to show how good it is — this time, on college basketball’s biggest stage. 

“We’re going to be sad today. But we’re excited to play on. That’s what I told my team after the game. We got outplayed today but we’ve had a great season,” Judkins said. “Don’t let one setback ruin what we’ve done the whole year. I’ll be very positive with them the whole week.

“I told them to keep their heads up and to walk out of here proud. You’re conference champs. We’ve only done that twice in the 10 years (in the WCC). Sometimes a loss gets (you) a little more focused. Hopefully that will be the case for us.”