Jay has covered sports in Utah for more than 30 years and has been writing for the Deseret News since 2019.
Paisley Harding, the colorfully named BYU women’s basketball star, got off to a start in the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament first-round game Monday morning that was as ugly as matching stripes with plaids. One of the most fiery and emotional players in program history turned the ball over on four of BYU’s first seven possessions.
“Just coming into the NCAA Tournament we just wanted to prove to ourselves, and to the nation, that we are going to fight and not let down and that we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. And we just showed that today.” — BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales
“I was like, ‘Dang, Pais, you go off girl,’” said Gonzales. “She did awesome and I am so proud of her, so, so proud of her. She really stepped it up when we needed her the most.”
All the Cougars did, really.
Harding had a team-high 28 points and five rebounds, and drew an offensive foul in the final minutes to rob Rutgers of a possession.
After Sunday’s 16-0 start for the higher seeds in the women’s tournament, BYU improved to 19-5 and became the first lower-seeded team to win a March Madness game this year. The Cougars will face No. 3 seed Arizona (17-5) on Wednesday in a second-round game.
“Just coming into the NCAA Tournament we just wanted to prove to ourselves, and to the nation, that we are going to fight and not let down and that we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. And we just showed that today,” said Gonzales, who was 10 of 11 from the free-throw line, part of BYU’s 20-of-23 effort from the stripe.
Ranked 21st in the nation in the AP Top 25 poll, the Scarlet Knights (14-5), third-place finisher in the Big Ten, had a 49-37 lead with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter.
WNBA-bound star Arella Guirantes led Rutgers with 30 points, but threw the ball away with the Scarlets Knights trailing by one with under 24 seconds remaining, and Gonzales and Harding made just enough free throws to help the Cougars pull it out.
“Rutgers is the best team we have played all year,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins, who led the Cougars to the Round of 32 in 2019 before they lost to Stanford. “They are very well coached and just very disciplined in what they do. Just tonight, the ball bounced our way, especially at the end.”
Credit the coach for dialing up the big play that, in essence, won the game for BYU.
With just three seconds remaining on the shot clock, and 33 on the game clock, Gonzales inbounded the ball to Harding, then got it back when Rutgers’ defense collapsed on the Cougars’ hottest shooter. Gonzales was fouled with 30.9 seconds left and made all three free throws.
“It all comes with confidence,” said Gonzales, who finished with 17 points, albeit on 3-of-17 shooting. “I got to that line and I told myself I was making those shots, and that those shots were big time and I needed to make all those to win the game.”
Gonzales played all 40 minutes, while Gustin and Harding played 39 minutes apiece. The Cougars appeared to tire in the third quarter, but found that extra gear in the fourth.
“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” Gonzales said. “Paisley passed a great pass to me in that out-of-bounds play. I just threw it up hoping it would go in and I got the call and stepped up and made my free throws.”
Trailing by 12 in the third quarter, Judkins got a timeout and told his team it couldn’t make up the difference on one shot. He told them to try to get it to seven entering the fourth quarter.
They did that, eventually pushing their run to 12-0 and taking a 57-54 lead on a pair of free throws by Gustin, an AP honorable mention All-American. Gustin scored six straight points for BYU in the fourth quarter.
“The thing that was nice tonight was at the end, every player on the floor made a play to help the team win,” Judkins said. “Tegan makes a 3-pointer. Lauren gets an offensive rebound, Shaylee gets fouled and makes foul shots. Paisley hits a 3-pointer, Smiler hits one. Defensively, we deflected passes. Those things are what this team is all about and that’s what makes it exciting as a coach, and I am happy for them.”
Add it all up, and it was a beautiful ending for the Cougars — after a not-so-pretty start for Harding.