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‘We don’t make the rules’: How the WAC’s second-place Utah Valley University made the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

Orem school placed second in the WAC standings in 2020-21, but earned the league’s automatic berth in the Big Dance because champion Cal Baptist is not eligible for the NCAAs despite going 24-0 and winning the conference tournament

SHARE ‘We don’t make the rules’: How the WAC’s second-place Utah Valley University made the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

Utah Valley University women’s basketball coach Dan Nielson coaches his players during game against Chicago State. This week, Nielson will lead the Wolverines to their first NCAA Tournament game ever against No. 1 overall seed Stanford.

Utah Valley University Athletics

There’s a scene in the hit television show “The Office” where Dwight Shrute goes up against a computer in a paper sales contest and somehow manages to defeat the company’s newfangled website on one particular day.

Utah Valley women’s basketball coach Dan Nielson, apparently a big fan of the show, is drawing upon that episode to convince his 16-seed Wolverines that they can hang with the No. 1 overall seed in the entire NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the 25-2 Stanford Cardinal.

“That might be what it is,” said Nielson, who was on BYU’s staff two years ago when the Cougars nearly upset the Cardinal in a second-round matchup on its home floor in Stanford, California. “You are going against Stanford, which is the computer. But you just compete and go from there. We are going to get creative and find ways to make them as uncomfortable as we can.”

“You are going against Stanford, which is the computer. But you just compete and go from there. We are going to get creative and find ways to make them as uncomfortable as we can.” — Utah Valley women’s basketball coach Dan Nielson

At least UVU (13-6, 10-4 WAC) doesn’t have to play Stanford at Maples Pavilion. The first-round game will be played Sunday at 8 p.m. MST at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. The entire women’s tournament will be played in the San Antonio area.

The Cardinal can probably name the score, but that isn’t dampening the excitement for UVU, which has never received an NCAA Tournament bid before, and wouldn’t have this year if not for a quirky situation involving WAC regular-season and conference tournament champion Cal Baptist.

Because the Lancers, the only undefeated women’s team in the country this season at 24-0, aren’t eligible for the NCAA Tournament yet due to transitioning from Division II to Division I status, the WAC’s presidents voted before the season to give the league’s automatic NCAA bid to the second-place regular-season finisher.

Which happens to be UVU. The Wolverines barely edged Grand Canyon, the team they lost to in the WAC semifinals last Friday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, for second place in the season standings, going 10-4 when the Antelopes went 8-4.

“We don’t make the rules,” Nielson said.

Actually, the second-year coach has gone out of his way all week to praise Cal Baptist for “an amazing season” and for “earning the right to be here.”

But somebody has to show up Sunday night not far from the famed Alamo to represent the far-flung league, and it might as well be the team that star center Josie Williams says is as close-knit as those denizens of the mission in 1836.

“We are all friends, which I think really helps our chemistry on the court,” said Williams, a 6-foot-5 junior from Roy High. “We get excited for each other. We have fun and I think what helps us most on the court is just being prepared and I think our coaches do a good job of helping us watch film and preparing us for each game.”

When they aren’t watching “The Office,” presumably.

Seriously, the Wolverines are overjoyed to be in this position, regardless of how it came to be, and plan to soak up every minute of the experience. 

Having joined the WAC in 2013-14, UVU appears to be a program on the rise under Nielson, a former Wolverines assistant under Cathy Nixon before he joined Jeff Judkins’ staff at BYU.


Utah Valley players huddle during game against Grand Canyon University during the WAC Tournament in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Friday March 12, 2021.

UVU Athletics

“This is a little bit different NCAA Tournament than normal, but from the minute we took this job we talked about getting to this point, and to get here any way we can is just amazing,” Nielson said. “I am really happy for our team to get to have this experience.”

Judkins, whose BYU team is also in the Big Dance and will play Rutgers on Monday in San Marcos, Texas, says Nielson deserves credit for adding games to his schedule when others were canceled due to COVID-19 issues. Those two extra games put UVU ahead of GCU in the standings.

“Dan was smart,” Judkins said. “He has always been one step ahead in that way.”

Making the NCAAs is a big deal, but perhaps UVU’s biggest story this season is the way the Wolverines dealt with adversity when they were down two starters and lost back-to-back games to CBU in Riverside, California, in early January.

They reeled off five straight wins to get back in the league race.

“I am just really proud of our girls for sticking with it,” Nielson said.

At the end of February and beginning of March, the Wolverines won four games in a six-day stretch and carried a five-game winning streak into the conference tournament.

So here is the school from Orem, ready to take on one of the perennial national powerhouses of women’s basketball and legendary coach Tara VanDerveer on the big stage. The game will be televised by ESPN, presumably as long as it is competitive.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions,” said Williams, an All-WAC first-team performer along with teammate Maria Carvalho. Shay Fano and Nehaa Sohail earned honorable mention citations and Carvalho was named to the All-Defensive Team for the second straight year. Fano made the All-Newcomer Team.

“We are all just really grateful for the opportunity we get to experience this and we are just excited to play and have this opportunity that we have been talking about all year,” Williams said.