Paisley Johnson Harding and her BYU teammates were perhaps the last team to make the women’s NCAA Tournament field after a heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament.
They didn’t waste their good fortune as the 11th-seeded Cougars (19-5) rallied behind Harding’s 28 points to beat sixth-seed and 21st-ranked Rutgers 69-66 on Monday to give the tournament its first upset after the higher seeds went 16-0 on Sunday. BYU will take on third-seeded and 11th-ranked Arizona, a 79-44 winner over Stony Brook, in a second-round Mercado Region game Wednesday.
“Coming into the NCAA Tournament we just wanted to prove ourselves, and to everyone, to the nation, that we were going to fight and not let down and that we deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament,” WCC player of the year Shaylee Gonzales said. “And we just showed that today.”
The Cougars were beaten in the WCC title game on a last-second shot by Gonzaga. They didn’t give that chance to the Scarlet Knights.
After Gonzales made the last of her six straight free throws with 13.4 seconds left and a five-point lead, Liz Martino hit a 3-pointer but Harding added another free throw and BYU had a foul to give to prevent Rutgers (14-5) from getting another shot off.
Harding scored eight straight points and Lauren Gustin the next four in a 12-0 run over 5 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter for a 57-54 lead while Rutgers was committing five turnovers. BYU held on from there, matching the one-woman offence of Arella Guirantes, who scored 13 straight Rutgers points in the quarter.
“We all just came together as a team and told each other that we’re going to win this game, that we’re not letting up and that we needed to fight,” Gonzales said. “We came together as a team and we told ourselves the we needed to pick up our defence and then transition into offence. They weren’t doing very well transitionally so we knew that we needed to push it.”
Harding was 8-of-17 shooting with four 3-pointers and consistently provided a spark on offence and defence.
“She was guarding their best player, who was probably one of the best players in the country,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “And I think that motivated her and if you know Paisley, she’s very competitive. She’s been waiting for this opportunity.”
Gonzales, who was only 3-of-17 shooting, made 10 of 11 from the line and finished with 17. Gustin scored six of her 10 points in the fourth quarter. BYU made nine 3s, including five in the third quarter to help them keep within distance after Rutgers went up by 12. BYU cut the lead to seven heading into the fourth quarter.
Guirantes scored 30 points on 10-of-18 shooting with Diamond Johnson adding 13 and Tekia Mack 11.
“We just missed shots. It’s as simple as that,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “Sometimes it happens. I don’t think it was anything they did, they were predictable the way they played. They played hard. We didn’t give up, I thought our attitude was great. Sometimes you make shots and sometimes you don’t.”
Guirantes and Johnson combined to score all the points in a 10-0 run to end the first half and take a 30-24 lead.
BYU: The Cougars gave up 19 turnovers, including 13 steals, to the Big Ten’s top defensive team (scoring and field-goal percentage defence) but kept their poise throughout until their moment arrived in the fourth quarter. In the end, they had one less turnover than Rutgers and scored nine more points off the Scarlet Knights’ errors than they gave up.
Rutgers: Guirantes showed why she’s considered a first-round WNBA pick and the Scarlet Knights turned in a remarkable season after losing nine games to a COVID-19 pause before emerging to win nine straight then losing to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.