After the BYU Cougars' ugly 71-57 loss to the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the 2014 WCC Championship game a couple of weeks ago, Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune reported that 6-foot-7 center Jennifer Hamson really couldn't determine whether it was a poor offensive performance or great defensive one that worked against her team.
Star guard Lexi Eaton epitomized their struggles on that day in Vegas, shooting just 2-for-18 from the field on a day when she quite literally struggled to make layups - although, it might have been easy to characterize the team's performance as nothing more than an off day, it did nothing to quell doubts about whether they belonged in the 2014 NCAA Tournament at all.
The major knock on BYU coming into the 2014 NCAA women's basketball tournament was that they really hadn't scored a quality win outside of their conference after playing a weak schedule, punctuated by that ugly loss in which they had as many turnovers as points (18) early in the second half en route to a loss against Gonzaga.
It was only one game against a ranked opponent that ended a 10-game winning streak, but was still emblematic of the team's bubble status - this wasn't a team that was ready to perform on the big stage. Surely, the logic might play out, there were teams from major conferences that were more deserving of their bid.
It's with that in mind that the full magnitude of 12th-seeded BYU's 72-57 upset over the fifth-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack today is fully understood: there was nothing that foretold of this occurring, certainly not by the typical standards of poring over tournament resumes or the more non-traditional methods of analyzing statistics. BYU, a mid-major that was supposed to be happy to even be there, is our latest example that there's more to pay attention to in women's basketball than the top of the national rankings by pulling off an improbable win against a team that dared to challenge the elite this season.
N.C. State was entering the tournament without senior point guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman, but boasted an ACC resume on which they'd already recorded wins against five tournament teams including the Maryland Terrapins. They had cracked the top 10 in the nation in February, achieving their best ranking in more than a decade before falling to upstart North Carolina. Nothing had come easy for the Wolfpack as they had overcome low expectations just to get this far; everything about this matchup suggested they would just continue their head-turning season led by a strong candidate for Coach of the Year.
Nothing can take away what the program achieved this season, but BYU was simply the better team on this day.
Perhaps part of the story really was a matter of luck swinging in BYU's favor after being struck by misfortune against Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game. Maybe today, it was the Wolfpack who were the victims of misfortune as Eaton scored a game-high 25 points on 9-for-19 shooting while N.C. shot an anemic 20-for-73 from the field.
6-foot-5 center Markeisha Gatling, among the most efficient scorers in the nation, shot just 5-for-14 from the field, missing shots she has made a living on all season. Fellow senior Kody Burke, whose perimeter game has been a near-perfect complement for Gatling all season, shot just 2-for-18 from the field as she was never able to find a rhythm and make an impact on the game. That type of uncharacteristically poor shooting from a team's stars can certainly be attributed to random chance, just as BYU experienced in their previous game.
But whereas BYU's performance against Gonzaga did leave room for doubt about whether it was a matter of poor offense or good defense, there was no such room allowed during today's win against N.C. State.
Although BYU's WCC opponents might be used to contending with the reach of Hamson - which ESPN was happy to tell you is about the same reach as Miami Heat star LeBron James'
, whose name you cannot escape even in a women's college basketball game - the Wolfpack looked like they simply didn't know what to do when the 6-foot-7 center made her intention of flirting with a triple-double once again clear early on. Regardless of whether she was properly credited with them, Hamson had five blocks in the first half; whereas even lower tier WCC opponents have learned to adjust and developed schemes to work around Hamson, N.C. State retreated to the three point line where they launched 27 shots, led by Kody Burke's season-high 11 attempts of which she only made two.
After sending the message that the Wolfpack simply wasn't going to score in the paint, Hamson was switched off of Gatling and was surprising effective at using her wingspan to contest a number of Burke's shots from the perimeter - perhaps more surprising was that Burke remained confident enough to continue shooting in Hamson's face. Yet with Hamson on Burke, 6-foot-2 junior forward Morgan Bailey drew the assignment of guarding Gatling and really shaped the defensive story of this game without making the type of dent in the boxscore that Hamson did.
What the rugged junior lacked in height she more than made up for in pure will, simply not allowing Gatling to get the type of deep position and clean looks that she had seemingly gotten with ease through the ACC season. Although Gatling finished with 11 points, seven of those came in the final 14 minutes of the game when the physical play had clearly taken its toll on Bailey. Yet by the time Gatling started to get comfortable, N.C. State's poor shooting had already dug themselves a hole that would eventually become 21-points deep. They would challenge as Gatling got going, but it was much too little too late as the shots kept falling for BYU while the Wolfpack never really found their touch.
From there, the even more amazing thing was that the blocks started coming from everywhere: they finished with a season-high 15 with five players other than Hamson recording at least one.
Perhaps most impressive about today's performance from BYU is that they didn't do it as we might have expected given the hype surrounding Hamson entering that game: Hamson, who faces centers as physical as Gatling about as often as Gatling faces 6-foot-7 shot blockers, was never able to establish herself on offense as she scored just 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting. It was Eaton who bounced back from that terrible WCC championship game to score a game-high, displaying elite athleticism and scoring acumen. It was Bailey who was responsible for shutting down Gatling in ways that her more familiar ACC opponents struggled to accomplish. It was sophomore Kylie Maeda who stepped up to support Eaton offensively, tying a season-high 14 points to keep N.C. State at arm's length.
BYU, as a team, showed that they belonged today. The presence of Hamson, who has been on WNBA radars for some time and can only benefit from today's performance against Gatling, was vital but that was clearly a win that came as a result of a unit tethered to a game plan that took apart their opponents on both ends.
In a tournament that can be easily - and justifiably - dismissed as a two-team show with the others around to give them a workout, BYU only reinforced the notion that there's more to the WCC than Gonzaga - this is already the second time in three years that the conference has produced two bids; if #6 Gonzaga wins tomorrow as they're seeded to do, it will be tthe first time ever that the conference has had two teams advance.
It might be unfair to make these programs the sole representative of a conference or even the mid-major landscape, but the win, or moreso the dominant way in which they won, is a significant statement for those watching for signs of growth in women's basketball.
For more on the BYU's tournament run, stay tuned to our Lincoln Region storystream.