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BYU women’s basketball suffers heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga on buzzer-beater in WCC championship game

The Cougars led top-seeded Gonzaga for most of Tuesday’s West Coast Conference championship game at Orleans Arena, and BYU was ahead by one point with less than one second remaining

BYU players and staff walk off the floor after falling to Gonzaga in the WCC women’s basketball tournament finals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 43-42.
BYU players and staff walk off the floor after falling to Gonzaga in the WCC women’s basketball tournament finals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 43-42.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — It was an agonizing loss that will likely linger with the BYU women’s basketball team for a long time.

The Cougars led top-seeded Gonzaga for most of Tuesday’s West Coast Conference championship game at Orleans Arena, and BYU was ahead by one point with less than one second remaining.

But Jill Townsend’s jumper at the buzzer over the Cougars’ 6-foot-7 center Sara Hamson won the title for the Bulldogs, 43-42.

With the win, Gonzaga (23-3), ranked No. 16 in the nation, punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, earning the league’s automatic bid. For Townsend, who was playing with an illness, the basket accounted for her only points of the game.

As for BYU? It was heartbreaking.

“It’s very, very frustrating to know that we lost off of a game-winner with .6 seconds left,” said Cougar guard Shaylee Gonzales, who earned All-WCC Tournament honors. “But as a team, we need to realize that we need to buckle down. We need to take care of business. That’s what big teams do. We need to buckle down on defense and not let them score that.”

Gonzaga was significantly shorthanded for the title game. Six Bulldog players, including three starters, as well as some coaches, were dealing with a stomach illness caused by food poisoning.

But after Townsend’s heroics, it was BYU that felt sick.

“That was a tough one. One rebound, one defensive stop, but that wasn’t really the game,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “The game came down to we made some mistakes before that. We didn’t execute offensively and defensively. You’ve got to give Gonzaga a lot of credit. They made the plays they needed to make and we didn’t.”

The Cougars (18-5) had plenty of chances to put the Bulldogs away but couldn’t do it. Gonzaga scored just 13 points in the first half, but it scored 10 over the final 3:20.

“I’m really proud of how tough our team was today. We had a long, long day. (Townsend) made the most memorable shot of the game, “ said Bulldogs coach Lisa Fortier. “But it was the 18 minutes prior to that — she was gutsy. We had three players who never started a game starting for us. Those guys were gutsy.”

Both teams struggled to score to open the game. Gonzaga led 8-6 on a basket by the WCC’s co-Player of the Year, Jenn Wirth, with 3:08 left in the first quarter. From there, the Zags went on a 10-minute scoring drought.

BYU went on a 13-0 run during that stretch to take a 19-8 lead before Wirth finally scored for the Zags with a pair of free throws. Gonzales buried a 3-pointer at the final buzzer of the first half to propel the Cougars to a 22-13 lead at intermission.

The problem for BYU was that it didn’t seize a bigger lead against the Zags while it had a chance. That would come back to haunt the Cougars.

“When we’re up 10, we’ve got to keep fighting,” Gonzales said. “We can’t let down because teams are going to want it. They’re going to fight back.”

Gonzaga saved its best for the fourth quarter as it whittled the deficit to one point, 40-39, with 1:34 remaining.

“When we needed to rally, our team showed incredible grit, toughness and resilience,” Townsend said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. It wasn’t just the shot I hit. It was a team effort and it was incredible.”

A layup by Gonzales put the Cougars ahead 42-39 with 45.8 seconds on the clock before Wirth hit a pair of free throws to pull within one again, 42-41.

Paisley Harding missed a shot with 10 seconds left and Wirth grabbed the rebound with 8.5 seconds remaining and called timeout. Kayleigh Truong missed a jumper with two seconds left, and Yvonne Ejim collected the rebound with .6 left.

The clock stopped with a dead ball and the ensuing inbound bounce pass went to Townsend, whose catch-and-shoot jumper found the bottom of the net at the buzzer.

Game over.

“It was like a blink of an eye. When it hit my hands, it needed to go back up,” Townsend said of the game-winner. “I had Sara Hamson right in my face. I’m kind of puzzled how I got it around her. Her hand was up and I couldn’t really see the hoop.”

The play was reviewed by the officials, who confirmed that the basket was good.

It capped a long day, and night, for Gonzaga.

“I got food poisoning last night late and some teammates also did. We tried to battle through that,” Townsend said. “I went through two bags of IV fluid an hour before the game.”

What did Judkins tell his team afterwards?

“I told them I was proud of them. We were .6 seconds away from winning a championship,” he said. “Sometimes the little tiny things make a difference. It wasn’t the shot that cost us the game. It was several other plays before that. We didn’t make a stop or didn’t get a rebound. Games like this comes down to little things. They did a better job of executing in the last minute of the game than we did.”

Judkins was incredulous about that final .6 seconds.

“It’s hard for me to believe that you can fumble it and get a shot off with .6 seconds, but I guess that’s what it is,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I would have called a timeout when I saw their set.”

So while Gonzaga is headed to the Big Dance, what is BYU’s fate? Going into the WCC Tournament, the Cougars were sitting squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“I think we should go. We played Gonzaga three times great,” Judkins said. “I watch other teams that I know are going to go and we’re as good as anybody. Hopefully through what we’ve done in the past and what we’ve done this year, people will look at it and say, ‘BYU is (a) top 64 team in the country.’”

Gonzales said she’s resolved to get back into the gym with her teammates and focus on improving, waiting for Selection Monday or whatever comes next.

“I’m proud of my team, and we fought really hard. We’re going to use this experience to learn and grow if we go into the NIT or the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “We’re going to come into practice and have the mindset that we are going to go to the tournament. I think it’s super important to have that mentality. Whatever tournament we go into, we need to take care of business. We need to use this as our fire and a learning experience.”

The Cougars probably won’t forget this bitter loss for a while, but they’re hoping to make the best of it.

“We’ll make it far in whatever tournament we go to,” Gonzales said, “because we don’t want to have this feeling again.”