As I boarded a flight to Lincoln, Neb., last weekend, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu.
I was headed to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament to cover the BYU basketball team, which had staged a couple of upsets against North Carolina State and Nebraska in Los Angeles in the first two rounds.
Because I had covered the men’s tournament in Milwaukee, I didn’t cover those games.
But after the No. 12 seed Cougar women advanced to the Sweet 16, I was assigned to go to Lincoln as it faced No. 1 UConn.
12 years earlier
Twelve years earlier, I had covered the first Sweet 16 appearance by the BYU women.
That year, I took a flight to Des Moines, Iowa to watch the No. 11 seed Cougars take on No. 6 Florida at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. BYU crushed the Gators, 90-52, on a Saturday afternoon, marking its first NCAA tournament victory, and earning a matchup with No. 3 Iowa State on its home floor on a Monday night.
I figured the run would end after that game.
BYU coach Jeff Judkins, and a couple of players, wearing their Sunday-best, showed up for a mandatory NCAA press conference Sunday afternoon.
The reporters unfamiliar with BYU could not believe that on the day before the biggest game in program history, the team was not practicing or preparing for that game.
Earlier that day, coaches and players attended sacrament meeting at an LDS chapel in Ames. That night, they put on a fireside complete with prayers, talks and hymns. Other than that press conference, they didn’t do anything related to the Iowa State game.
Reporters that don’t cover BYU on a regular basis and aren’t aware of the no-Sunday-play policy, were stunned. [pullquote]Reporters that don’t cover BYU on a regular basis and aren’t aware of the no-Sunday-play policy, were stunned.[/pullquote]
As Judkins and his players fielded questions, the sound of basketballs bouncing echoed through the corridor of the arena. Iowa State was practicing for the Cougars.
“Aren’t you at a significant disadvantage not practicing for Iowa State?” a reporter asked.
“No, I think it’s completely to our advantage,” said forward Danielle Cheesman. “Sunday is a day we get to focus on other things. It’s our day for reflection on our church.”
Judkins downplayed the issue, explaining that his team would have plenty of time Monday morning to prepare. Plus, he added he didn’t want to wear out his team physically before the game.
Then someone asked what would happen if the Cougars reached the NCAA championship game, scheduled for — that’s right — a Sunday.
“We will not be playing in that game,” Judkins said matter-of-factly. “It would have to be moved to a Monday or Tuesday or else we would forfeit.”
More shocked looks all around from the non-Utah media.
(Thanks to the so-called “BYU rule,” enacted in 1998, the NCAA must alter tournament schedules for religious reasons.)
As it turned out, the visiting BYU squad upset heavily favored Iowa State, on its home floor, 75-69.
When the final buzzer sounded, forward Melanie Pearson — a returned missionary who earlier in the week had predicted success in the tournament, explaining that the Cougars could surprise opposing teams that “just see us as a bunch of Mormon girls from Utah” — tossed the ball in the air in jubilation. The ecstatic Cougars enjoyed an improvisational Family Home Evening group hug on the court. At that moment, on a Monday evening, it was the Cyclone fans, and players, who sat in stunned silence.
Was this heaven? No, it was Iowa.
You just couldn’t tell that to the BYU women’s basketball team. You know, those Mormon girls from Utah who don’t play — or even practice — on Sunday.
I returned home from Ames early Tuesday morning, then took a flight Thursday to Memphis to watch the men’s team play Memphis in the second round of the NIT. The Cougars lost that game, and the next morning, I drove a rental car some 10 hours — 700 miles — back to Ames to watch the women play national powerhouse Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.
The Cougars’ NCAA dreams ended when they bowed out of the tournament against the Volunteers. But the BYU women’s basketball team made a lasting impression in Ames for what it didn’t do on the court as much as what it did on it.
12 years later
Twelve years later, there was a familiar feeling in the air.
Last week I talked to the star of that 2002 team, guard Erin Thorn, who enjoyed a 10-year career in the WNBA.
“The feel of this year’s team in the NCAA tournament, just watching it, was very reminiscent of what we did in 2002,” Thorn said.
I asked her what advice she would give this year’s team entering the Sweet 16.
“You kind of have to ignore the hype and just play your game,” Thorn said. “It got you where you are. It clearly worked against the No. 4 and No. 5 seed. Why not against a No. 1 seed? Even if you lose, put up a good fight.”
The 2014 Cougar women were relishing the attention they were receiving. The New York Times profiled the team. For a while after the win over Nebraska, BYU was featured on the front page of ESPN.com. People in Provo were giddy about the Cougars.
“It’s pretty cool because people that probably don’t watch women’s basketball that often have heard about it,” said guard Kim Beeston. “If I’m wearing a BYU women’s basketball shirt, they’ll say something like, ‘Hey, we watched your game. That was awesome. Go get ‘em.’ It’s really cool that people that wouldn’t talk to you before are saying things like that.”
Though Judkins had a new roster of players, he looked, and acted, exactly the same as 2002. This time, he was even more grateful for a Sweet 16 appearance, knowing how difficult it is to get there.
Before the game, Juddy acknowledged the dominance of UConn — the Huskies were undefeated and the defending national champions. He acknowledged that his team was a big underdog.
But he wouldn’t allow his team to be intimidated or awed by mighty UConn.
And that’s exactly how the Cougars played. BYU led by six points, 27-21, with less than five minutes left in the first half. It was UConn’s largest deficit of the season. BYU’s 6-foot-7 center, Jennifer Hamson was blocking and altering shots. Forward Morgan Bailey, the niece of former N.C. State star Thurl Bailey, was draining 3’s. So was Beeston.
The red-clad Nebraska fans in attendance threw their support behind BYU. Beeston was trending nationally on Twitter. Even those not interested in women’s basketball were tuning in to watch. Later, it was learned that the BYU-UConn game was the highest rated NCAA women’s tournament game with 1.5 million viewers.
Could the Cougars pull off one of the biggest upsets in college sports history?
BYU trailed by just one at half, and regained the lead in the first 30 seconds of the second half. The game was tied, 37-37, with a little less than 17 minutes left.
From there, UConn took control with a 10-0 run, and after BYU cut the deficit to six on a 3-pointer by Beeston, the Huskies outscored the Cougars 18-5 the rest of the way.
And with that, the remarkable season ended.
In the locker room after the game, Judkins was disappointed, but he couldn’t help but smile. His team, that featured 11 players, and four starters, from the state of Utah, had thrown a major scare into UConn.
The NCAA was probably relieved, knowing that it wouldn’t have to adjust the Final Four schedule (semifinals are scheduled for Sunday) to accommodate the Cougars.
Once again, BYU lost to a vaunted program in its second appearance in the Sweet 16.
But, as Judkins and the Cougars will tell you, just being there is a major victory in itself.