BYU’s women’s basketball team was five minutes away from the Sweet 16 on Wednesday night in San Antonio, Texas.
But the 11th-seeded Cougars couldn’t close the deal and fell 52-46 to No. 3 Arizona in an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament second-round game at UTSA’s Convocation Center.
“Yeah, it is hard to come this close and lose,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “We are going to look back at this and say a couple plays here and there and we advance. But you gotta give Arizona a lot of credit. You make your breaks. You have to go and do it.”
Arizona did it, especially in the final five minutes.
“We had a four-point lead. We let them back into the game, unfortunately,” said star guard Shaylee Gonzales. “It slipped out of our hands.”
Gonzales led BYU (19-6) with 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting, but her reliable sidekick struggled all night. Fellow guard Paisley Johnson Harding took a hard fall in the first half trying to draw a charge — she was ran over but called for a blocking foul — and could never find a groove.
After scoring 28 points in BYU’s 69-66 win over Rutgers on Monday, Harding mustered just two points on 1 of 9 shooting. She played just 22 minutes.
Judkins said Harding hurt her hand during the fall and couldn’t do as many things as usual.
“But I think she showed a lot of heart,” he said. “Our whole team showed a lot of heart.”
Judkins said the good news is that Harding will be back next year, along with all of the other seniors on the team. They are all taking the “extra year” allowed by the NCAA due to the pandemic.
“I know that we could have definitely beat that team,” Gonzales said. “I am excited to get in the gym and get better, and next year we are going to be back (in the tournament).”
Aari McDonald, a second-team All-American, got hot late and led Arizona with 17 points, while Cate Reese added 12. The Wildcats (18-5) won despite shooting 36% from the field and going 5 of 13 from the free-throw line.
The Wildcats won it with defense, as McDonald hounded Gonzales in the second half and BYU’s star scored only two points in the fourth quarter.
Despite Harding’s off night and the Cougars’ 15 turnovers — four giveaways came in the first two minutes — BYU settled in and gave the Wildcats all they wanted after Arizona crushed Stony Brook in the first round.
Trying to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014, underdog BYU flirted with its second-straight upset and had the Pac-12’s second-place Wildcats on the ropes with 5:03 remaining after a 6-0 run.
The Cougars led 43-39, but McDonald, who was 0 for 4 from long range prior to a timeout, hit a 3-pointer out of that break to flip the momentum in the favored team’s direction.
“We were cool, calm and collected and we played together,” McDonald said.
BYU committed a shot clock violation, then saw Arizona take the lead for good on another triple, this time by Sam Thomas. Her 3-pointer came after a miss, but the Wildcats were able to corral the rebound, a common theme throughout the night.
Arizona collected 14 offensive rebounds and had 14 second-chance points.
“BYU is a really good team,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “They were relentless, so all the respect for them.”
Gonzales attempted a difficult step-back jumper after Thomas’ trey, but it was off and Helena Pueyo scored on the other end.
Trailing by three, the Cougars got a good look with 44 seconds left, but Kaylee Smiler’s attempt was long. A Cougar had the rebound momentarily, but it was stripped by McDonald and the Wildcats survived.
“I don’t think we played our best, but we got the job done,” Barnes said.
Tegan Graham had made a 3-pointer with 1:58 left to pull the Cougars within a point, but those were the last points BYU would score in the defensive struggle.
“Games like this, when it comes down right to the end, what team makes plays, what team makes shots, wins,” Judkins said, “and they made a couple really big plays at the end. We were open and we had our opportunities and they just didn’t fall tonight.”
The Cougars led 25-23 at halftime and the score was tied at 37-37 after three quarters. After ending the third quarter with five straight empty possessions, the Cougars went scoreless for four more possessions before Graham broke through with a jumper. She finished with 13 points.
Lauren Gustin and Gonzales scored on back-to-back possessions, giving the Cougars the four-point lead.
That’s when McDonald and company took over, while BYU stopped executing.
McDonald said Barnes told the team during the timeout that they weren’t going to lose.
Turns out, she was right.