Rice defeated BYU 71-67 in the first round of the WNIT Friday evening at the Marriott Center, marking the second year in a row that the Cougars have fallen in the first round of a postseason tournament.

With the season on the line for both teams, the Cougars came out sluggish to begin Friday night. Rice started the game on a 10-0 run, putting BYU in a hole from the tip, and the Cougars could never fully recover.

“I’m really proud of my girls how they finished that game (after) we got down 10-0,” BYU coach Amber Whiting said. “They could have folded. They could have turned on each other and they didn’t and that says a lot about their character and a lot about what we’re building here.”

The Cougars came close to catching the Owls in the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to two points. One of BYU’s best chances to make up the difference came with it down three, ball in hand and 18 seconds to play.

But after two missed 3-pointers, the Cougars’ season was all but over.

Rice gained momentum going into nearly every quarter, scoring a bucket right before the buzzer each of the first three periods.

But the Cougars remained resilient, fighting to the bitter end.

“I feel like I have really tough women and they’re gritty,” Whiting said. “They come together and they can fight for each other on the court and I’ve seen that time and time again.”

Though BYU’s fight was impressive and its near comeback gritty, it all fell barely too short.

The game marked the first time that the Cougars and the Owls had met since the late 1990s, when the two teams were Western Athletic Conference foes.

BYU entered the WNIT having lost four of its last six contests. Rice, on the other hand, had won five of its last six. The Owls continue trending upward while the Cougars up-and-down season comes to a close.

“None of us like to lose,” BYU junior forward Lauren Gustin said. “It’s at the end of season now, so I think that’s definitely really heartbreaking. … I’m proud of us girls for fighting… but you know, it hurts.”

BYU was led on the night by Nani Falatea and Gustin, who each had 20 points. Gustin also finished the night with 20 rebounds, securing her 27th double-double of the season.

Gustin came just shy of the NCAA single-season rebounding record, ending her impressive year 11 boards short of tying the all-time mark.

However, the school’s single-season rebounding leader says she plans to come back for her final year of eligibility, giving her another shot at the record she just missed.

“It would have been awesome to hit,” Gustin said of the NCAA record, “but (I) just wanted to get the win at the end of the day. But you know, there’s always next year.”

The loss brought BYU’s final record to 16-17. The Cougars’ defeat gives the program its only loss to Rice in the Marriott Center and its first losing season in 15 years.

BYU had not been to the WNIT since a first-round exit in 2017. Since that time, the Cougars had gone to the NCAA tournament on three different occasions.

The last time Rice made it to the WNIT was 2021, when the Owls were the tournament’s winners. The Owls’ season continues, keeping their hopes alive for another WNIT banner.

With the win, Rice advances to the second round of the WNIT where it will face Oregon next week with a berth to the Super 16 on the line.

Game time is to be determined.