No. 20 BYU downs Gonzaga 63-39 in front of record-setting crowd

Paisley Harding scored 16 points to help lead the Cougars. (Photo Courtesy of BYU Photo)

By Nathan Farmer | @nlfarmer1

Behind 21 points from Shaylee Gonzales and 16 points from Paisley Harding, the No. 20 BYU Cougars capped off a perfect home season with a 63-39 senior night victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs Saturday at the Marriott Center in front of a record-setting crowd.

The announced attendance was 6,289, breaking the previous record of 6,208 set in 2008.

“These are fun games. Fun games to coach, fun games to play,” said BYU head coach Jeff Judkins. “What an atmosphere. This was an awesome crowd, the best I’ve ever seen in my 21 years here. The girls deserved it. They work hard. They do whatever they have to do, so to be able to see that and have the crowd feel the emotion of all the hard work that these guys have done was well worth it.”

The Cougars celebrated seniors Tegan Graham, Kayla Belles-Lee, Maria Albiero, Sara Hamson and Paisley Harding following the game with a ceremony honoring the players and their families. Each player took a turn to express their thanks to their family, friends, coaches and fans.

In the opening quarter, both teams traded buckets to give the Zags a 12-11 lead at the end of one. Albiero connected from long range early on to get the crowd fired up. At the end of the quarter, a controversial sequence brought the opposite emotions out of the home crowd after a moving screen was called on Hamson and Gonzales was called for a foul on a buzzer-beater attempt by Kayleigh Truong, who made two out of three free throws.

The Cougars defense locked down in the second quarter, allowing just one made field goal. Nani Falatea made a transition trey off of a dish from Harding to put BYU up 19-13, forcing a timeout from Gonzaga. Gonzales was a perfect 3-for-3 from the field in the period and 2-for-2 from the charity stripe to lead the Cougars to a 27-17 halftime lead.

Out of the break, the Cougars began to pour it on, with a pair of quick threes from Graham and Albiero giving BYU a 37-21 lead and forcing a timeout from the Bulldogs. The timeout didn’t bring any answers for the Zags, as the Cougars rattled off another seven unanswered points, capped off by another Harding triple.

BYU closed the quarter with the highlight of the night, a laser of a pass from Albiero to Gonzales as the shot clock was expiring, who laid it up and in through contact. Between the second and third quarters, the Cougars outscored Gonzaga 39-13 and took a 50-25 lead into the fourth.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t go down quietly, as they shifted to a high-low offense to begin the 4th that allowed them to gain more rhythm offensively. Graham capped off her Marriott Center career with one last triple, giving the team 124 on the season at the home confines. With just under a minute remaining, Judkins called a timeout to pull all of the seniors and give them one final sendoff from the home fans.

“They came back for this reason,” said Judkins. “Very few people in life can have dreams and have those dreams come true, and I think they felt this was going to happen this year from day one. They came back to really make a mark. Every one of them had to sacrifice something for this team to be successful.”

Judkins went on to praise his players for how they’ve stepped up to be examples of great athletes and inspiring young fans.

“They’re just really considerate and love those young kids. They put their arms around them. It’s not just here, it’s in San Francisco, San Diego, and in the airport. That’s them and that’s just the way they are. They really live to do the things that BYU stands for.”

The Cougars finish their home regular season on a 30-game winning streak. BYU has an outside chance of hosting more games if they are able to crack the NCAA’s top 16 seeds, but the loss to Portland a few weeks ago is hurting their chances. The Cougars will have to win out through the conference tournament and get a little help in front of them to break into the top 16 and host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

The victory also all but clinches the WCC regular season championship for the Cougars, as they need just one victory over their final two games to clinch at least a share of the crown with Gonzaga.

BYU will head out to the Bay Area for the final two games of the regular season this week. The Cougars will travel to Santa Clara to face the Broncos on Thursday at 7 p.m. MDT, then travel inland to Stockton to face the Pacific Tigers on Saturday at 3 p.m. MDT. Both games will be streamed on the WCC Network and on select local stations.

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