PROVO, Utah — When you win a big game in an NCAA basketball tournament, you'd expect some fan mail. But from the other team's fans?
That's what happened to the BYU women's basketball team after defeating Iowa State 75-69 March 18 to advance to the NCAA women's Sweet 16. BYU Head Coach Jeff Judkins said during a telephone interview that following the game the parents of Iowa State star Angie Welle approached him and said, " 'We feel bad that our team lost, but if we were going to lose, we'd as soon lose to you guys.' I said, 'Why is that?' They said, 'Just the way [the BYU players] communicated with you, the light and glow they had in their faces. The love they had for one another was something we'll always remember.' "
Coach Judkins also said he received some 50 E-mails from Iowa State congratulating the Cougars and saying "how much they thought of our program and our team."
The BYU women would have loved nothing better to continue to "set an example" — on and off the court — into the Elite Eight, but their dream year came to an end March 23 with a 68-57 loss to Tennessee in the Midwest Region semifinals. The 2001-2002 women's squad set a new standard in Cougar hoop lore. Before this NCAA tournament, a BYU women's team had never won a game in the "big dance." It's also the best any BYU basketball team has done since the 1980 men's team made it to the Elite Eight.
"We're proud that we represented our school well," Coach Judkins said. "We're disappointed because we didn't play one of our better games [against Tennessee]. We felt if we could have played better, we could've won the game, but we feel as a team . . . we're on the right track. This will give us confidence for the next season."
That's the truth. Tennessee has been to the Sweet 16 for 16 straight years. It was BYU's first time there, and the Cougars, an 11th seed, held the second-seeded Lady Vols to the wire throughout most of the game, even taking an early nine-point lead. "They played hard," the coach added. "They showed good sportsmanship. They showed a lot of respect to a lot of people. It was a great example for our Church. I had people come to me and tell me how classy our team was."
The Lady Cougars try to share that class — and their testimonies — wherever they can. During the tournament in Ames, Iowa, the players attended Church on Sunday, March 17, and held a fireside for the Ames Iowa Stake. As per Church and BYU standards, they did not practice the day before facing off with Iowa State.
During a press conference that weekend, members of the media asked Coach Judkins and Danielle Cheesman, freshman player, if they were giving Iowa State the advantage by not practicing. Danielle quickly answered: "I think it's completely to our advantage. Sunday is a day we get to focus on other things. It's our day for reflection in our Church."
The next day, they won. Coach Judkins said some members of the media told him: "We really respect what you . . . believe in. I never thought you'd play so well missing practice. It's impressive to see your team has their standards and morals right."
Coach Judkins said the team's regular routine — besides practicing and playing — is reading scriptures together on road trips, sharing testimonies with one another and others, speaking at schools and seminaries, and visiting hospitals, including visiting children with cancer.
The team he described as "close knit" even gave a copy of the Book of Mormon to their bus driver in Ames. That driver later told Coach Judkins, "I've driven a lot of people over the years, but there's not been a better example of how a lady should act and dress . . . than your team."
Deseret News staff writer Jeff Call contributed to this article.
E-mail: [email protected]