Not long after the BYU women’s basketball team finished celebrating a somewhat unexpected at-large bid to the 2021 Women’s NCAA Tournament and the euphoria subsided just a bit, reality set in.

It came in the form of a column by ESPN.com women’s basketball expert Charlie Creme that, well, insinuated the 11th-seeded Cougars, who drew No. 6 seed Rutgers of the Big Ten in a first-round game (Monday, 10 a.m. MDT, ESPNU), really don’t deserve to be in March Madness this year.

“I just feel so much joy and happiness for our team and I know my team deserved it. We are excited to get there and show what we are made of.” — BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales.

Most experts say BYU (18-5) was the last team to make it in the Big Dance, which will be entirely contested in San Antonio, Texas, and surrounding cities this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were plenty of reasons to leave any of (the bubble teams) out, and it’s difficult to build a strong case for any bubble team’s inclusion,” Creme wrote. “That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to see the Cougars in the field.”

Creme believes the selection committee was overly impressed that the Cougars played No. 5 seed Gonzaga “to a one-point thriller in the WCC championship game before losing at the buzzer” on Jill Townsend’s disputed buzzer-beater.

“Making that game a positive is where I differ from the committee and why I left BYU out of the final Bracketology,” he said.

And that made the Cougars mad — for the second time in less than a week.

Last Tuesday, of course, BYU coach Jeff Judkins felt like the clock that showed just .6 seconds did not start soon enough before Townsend’s shot was allowed upon review and the Zags won, 43-42. As Creme correctly points out, BYU blew a 13-point third-quarter lead and Gonzaga was short-handed due to a flu bug that swept through the team the night before.

“BYU should have won that game going away,” Creme wrote, calling the Cougars “this year’s benefactors of a watered-down bubble.”

Judkins said in a Zoom call Monday that the way they handled COVID-19 protocols — no games were canceled due to BYU’s issues — and the way they competed in the tournament two years ago might have impressed the committee as much as anything else.

From what I heard, if the men’s (tournament staff) was doing the clock and everything, the basket would not have been good,” he said. “Maybe the NCAA looked at that and said, ‘Hey, they beat Gonzaga (in the regular season), probably should have beat them again if not for a last-second shot.”

That’s all water under the bridge now. The Cougars are dancing, and star guard Shaylee Gonzales is ready for a return to the spotlight after introducing herself to the women’s college basketball world in a big way as a freshman in 2019 at Stanford.

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Gonzales had 32 points, five rebounds, an assist and two steals in the Cougars’ 72-63 loss at host Stanford in a second-round game after having defeated Auburn in a first-rounder. Fellow guard Paisley Johnson, who is also back this year, added 11 points in the loss as several notable BYU alums, such as Super Bowl MVP Steve Young, looked on.

Months later, tragedy struck. Gonzales, who had averaged 17.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists her freshman season, sustained a major knee injury. She needed surgery in June 2019 to repair a lateral meniscus tear and a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Having missed the entire 2019-20 season, Gonzales is back, and she’s ready to make up for lost time. It will be BYU’s 14th appearance in the women’s tournament; The Cougars are 6-9 in the tournament. In 2002, they advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed, so history might be on their side when they just sneak in.

“I just feel so much joy and happiness for our team and I know my team deserved it,” she said. “We are excited to get there and show what we are made of.”

And prove the critics wrong.

But it won’t be easy. 

Rutgers (14-4 overall) went 10-3 in the Big Ten and played third in that outstanding league before being eliminated by Iowa in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The Scarlet Knights are coached by the legendary C. Vivian Stringer and play the kind of aggressive, full-court defense more than 50% of the game that has given the Cougars fits in previous games.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament


No. 11 BYU (18-5)


vs. No. 6 Rutgers (14-4)


Monday, 10 a.m. MDT


At Strahan Arena, San Marcos, Texas


TV: ESPNU


Radio: BYU Radio, 107.9 FM


“The size and athleticism that Rutgers has is going to be a big challenge to us,” said Judkins, who says Stringer deserves to be on the list of great women’s coaches that includes UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt. “That’s going to be a key to the game, is how we handle their pressure. They are a tough, physical defensive oriented team.”

Gonzales has spent the week telling the younger players on the team that the NCAAs are “a lot different” than regular conference play.

“Teams are a lot more aggressive,” she said. “Girls are bigger, faster, stronger and taller. It is the real deal. And those teams are very, very good.

“Just being able to experience that my freshman year opened my eyes and I was able to realize that, ‘OK, we are going to have to get stronger, work harder, get better so we can play to the best of our abilities. … I feel like we deserve to be here.”

No matter what Charlie Creme says.