July 16, 2024

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BYU women’s basketball: Untold story of Cougars’ Sweet 16 run in 2002

12 min read
BYU women’s basketball: Untold story of Cougars’ Sweet 16 run in 2002

When the BYU women’s basketball team tipped off the 2001-02 season in coach Jeff Judkins’ inaugural campaign at the helm, the program had never won a game in the NCAA Tournament. 

And there were times during that season that it looked like the Cougars wouldn’t even qualify for the Big Dance.

But by mid-March, No. 11-seeded BYU had shocked the country and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. 

Still, the 2002 team’s legacy transcends that amazing, historic run, which included an upset of No. 3-seeded Iowa State on its home floor. 

Now, exactly 20 years later, Judkins has another team for the ages — perhaps his best ever — that’s looking to not only equal the achievement of the 2002 squad, but go even farther. Maybe to a place this program has never been before, like the Elite Eight. Or the Final Four.  

“It set a great foundation for our program, a great tone for what’s expected and what we needed to do,” Judkins said of the 2002 team.

The 2002 BYU squad blazed trails for the 2022 version, led by players like Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Harding. 

The current Cougars are 26-3 after capturing the West Coast Conference regular season outright, and before falling to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship game Tuesday. This week, BYU earned its highest Associated Press poll ranking in school history, No. 15.

The Cougars are eagerly awaiting Selection Sunday and a chance to make more history.

One of the current assistant coaches is Melanie Pearson Day, who was a key contributor in 2002. She has a unique perspective with her connections to the two teams.

“Everyone feels really comfortable around each other,” she said. “When you have that comfort level, and that love for each other, you can be yourself and you can learn to really trust each other. And you see it on the court.”

In January, the two teams separated by two decades, converged when the 2002 squad was honored by the school. There was a reunion dinner held at the Cougar Room at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where stories were shared, tears were shed and there were plenty of laughs as they recalled that memorable season. 

As they watched the 2022 team play that weekend, they noticed how reminiscent it is of the 2002 team. 

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Members of the 2002 BYU women’s basketball team that reached the Sweet 16 were recognized during a game against Pacific at the Marriott Center in Provo this season.

Matthew Norton, BYU Photo

“They have everything covered, similar to the way we did. They’re smart,” said Erin Thorn, a BYU star in 2002. “They have some girls where, even if Shaylee has an off night, Paisley picks it up. They have role players, playing defense, rebounding. They take advantage of you when you make mistakes. It’s a very similar team to what we had. They all buy in. That’s what it takes.”

‘We had to go down a bumpy road’

Thorn, who now runs a basketball academy in Las Vegas, was recruited by schools from all over the country out of Mountain View High. The Orem native ultimately picked BYU, in part because of what had not been accomplished yet in Provo. 

“It’s honestly the reason why I went to BYU in the first place. I wanted to go somewhere and do something that’s never been done. I was recruited by Duke,” Thorn said. “Duke made it to the championship game the year before I went to college. I wanted to do that, or make a run, where it had never been done.

“I wanted the storybook ending, where we get to do something that had never been done and represent BYU on that national level and really start to build that foundation. It’s happened since (in 2014). Somebody had to break through first and that’s the mentality I went in with for going to BYU.”

At the end of the 2000-01 season, Judkins replaced Trent Shippen as the Cougars’ head coach. Judkins had some ambitious goals for the program, including winning conference championships, getting fans to attend games and advancing in the NCAA Tournament.

While 2001-02 turned out to be a magical season for the Cougars, it didn’t always look that way. In mid-January, for example, BYU had a mediocre 9-6 record and the postseason seemed far away. 

Lisa Osguthorpe Baxter, a forward in 2002, remembers a team meeting around that time that served as a turning point of the season. 

“Coach Judkins got mad at us,” she recalled. “It was a moment where everybody spoke up. We knew we could be so much better. We realized that we could either love each other and play for each other or we could have a bad year. Those were our two choices. We were inconsistent during the season. We decided we could do it if we put our selfish stuff aside. We had to go down a bumpy road to become a great team.”

The Cougars finished the regular season winning nine of their final 11 games. Then in the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, BYU beat Wyoming and New Mexico. The Cougars downed UNLV on its home floor to capture the tournament championship. 

“Until we got to that point, we weren’t a great team,” said Baxter, now a mother of four and a basketball coach who lives in San Diego. “We weren’t a great team until we hit that tournament in Las Vegas.”

BYU wouldn’t have gone to the Big Dance without earning the Mountain West’s automatic bid. 

“What stands out to me is, we had ups and downs that year,” Judkins remembered. “We lost some games we shouldn’t have lost. We got down but we came back with vengeance and confidence.”

Sweet 16: ‘Bring Your Upset’

Just in time for the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars were rolling. 

“We had all the pieces. We had Jennifer Leitner as a defender and rebounder,” Baxter said. “Erin Thorn was a scoring machine. Melanie was a scoring machine off the bench. We had a great point guard in Stacy Jensen. We had experience. We had good guard play and dynamic scorers and we were coached really well. Our game plans were fantastic.”

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BYU’s Erin Thorn gets off a jumper against Tennessee in the 2002 Sweet 16 game at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. The Cougars fell to the Vols, 68-57.

BYU received a No. 11 seed and was dispatched to Ames, Iowa, in the Midwest Region, to face No. 6 Florida.

The Gators never knew what hit them. BYU blitzed Florida 90-52, on Saturday afternoon. 

It marked the Cougars’ first-ever NCAA Tournament victory and it set up a showdown with No. 3 Iowa State, at Hilton Coliseum, the Cyclones’ home floor.

That game was scheduled for Monday night. Because of school policy, BYU, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, doesn’t practice on Sundays. 

That Sunday, the team attended a local sacrament meeting in the morning and held a fireside that night. 

In between, Judkins and a couple of players attended the NCAA’s mandatory news conference. 

Reporters that don’t cover BYU on a regular basis weren’t aware of the no-Sunday-play policy. They were stunned that, on the eve of the biggest game of the program’s history, the Cougars would not be practicing. 

As Judkins and his players fielded questions, the sound of basketballs bouncing echoed through the corridor of the area. Iowa State was practicing in preparation for the game. 

“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 freshman forward Danielle Cheesman. “Sunday is a day we get to focus on other things. It’s our day for reflection on our church.”

Then someone asked what would happen if the Cougars reached the NCAA championship game, scheduled for 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.

The following night, BYU shocked everyone again, upsetting heavily favored Iowa State on its home floor, 75-69. It marked the biggest win in program history. 

“Iowa State is where everything came together perfectly. They tried to do a box-and-one on me to start the game,” Thorn said. “Everyone else was taking advantage of it. So they go out of the box-and-one. Then I hit two 3s and they went right back to it. We started to pick them apart. Literally everybody was playing at their max potential.”

“The crowd was so loud, I couldn’t hear coach Judkins during the timeouts,” Baxter remembered. “There were a couple of minutes left and he was talking and we couldn’t hear him. That place was packed. The fans were so nice to us before and after the game. They were saying, ‘We’ll be rooting for you.’ Very polite.”

When the final buzzer sounded, Day — 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. At that moment, on a Monday evening, it was the Cyclone fans, and players, that sat in stunned silence.

“They didn’t lose a game all year at home. We came out and beat them. Those girls knew how to play,” Judkins said. “It showed that if you stick to what you’ve been taught and you stick together, you can go a long way.”

“They were a No. 3 seed and we were a No. 11. They were expected to beat us handily. We hung around the whole game,” Day said. “They were ahead by 10 with four minutes left. It looked like they had it. But we just believed in each other. We made plays at the end. The crowd was just stunned.

“I remember the Iowa State point guard was dribbling down and I was facing her. Tears were streaming down her face, knowing that they had lost the game. It was just euphoria for us. I had the ball at the end of the game and I chucked it up in the air. Then being in the locker room, there was nothing like it, being the Cinderella. A team that’s supposed to lose, and then winning. That’s the best feeling.”

“It was fun. I still remember ESPN started calling BYU ‘Bring Your Upset.’ It was a little surreal. It was the culmination of all your hard work. It was the championship but for us, it was a mini-championship,” Thorn said. “We had just done something that nobody thought we could do and something nobody from BYU had done before.

“It was breaking through that barrier and accomplishing what you set out to do. Melanie tossed the ball, we celebrated, and then my competitiveness came back and I said, ‘We’re not done. We have more to do.’”

A bitter Sweet 16 game

The next weekend, BYU returned to Ames to face perennial powerhouse Tennessee, a No. 2 seed. The Volunteers were led by legendary coach Pat Summitt and star Kara Lawson. 

As the Cinderella team of the tournament, the Cougars had support from the Iowa State fans. 

“I remember the crowd after that. They were hosting the Sweet 16 games, too, so their fans had already bought tickets,” Thorn said. “They assumed they’d be in the Sweet 16. The fans were so impressed with our team. A large group of them came back and were cheering for us.”

Thorn and her teammates enjoyed the attention, both locally and nationally. 

“People started to recognize us. Who is this team that’s knocking off the perennial powerhouses? To beat Iowa State, it opened people’s eyes. It brought some recognition. People started to take BYU’s program a little more seriously at that point. Seeing yourself in the national media, on SportsCenter, that’s big for a program. We hadn’t really done anything in the past.”

However, the Cougars fell to Tennessee 68-57. The Volunteers went on to the Final Four. 

Twenty years later, Thorn is still mad about that game. She hit just 3 of 22 from the field and 2 of 18 from 3-point range. 

“That’s the worst shooting game I ever had, at the worst possible time,” she said. “I got home from that trip and one of my friends’ mom said, ‘Erin, all you had to do was make four 3s.’ We lost by 11. I said, ‘Yeah, I know. Trust me.’ I didn’t force any shots. They sat in a zone, they were all open. They were rattling in and out. I couldn’t put the ball in the hole. To this day, if we win that game, we make the Final Four pretty easily. It’s still in the back of my mind. It’s one of those games that I wish I had back.”

“If Jennifer Leitner wouldn’t have gotten her fourth foul with 16 minutes left in the second half — I had to sit her for 10 minutes — we probably would have won,” Judkins said.

Even today, the Cougars can only think about what could have been. 

“We were right there with Tennessee,” Day said. “The ball bounces a couple times our way, then we would have gotten to the Elite 8 and I think we would have gone to the Final Four.”

“We should have beaten Tennessee, let’s be honest,” Baxter said. “We should have.”

Though that loss was devastating, it was also validating. 

“We weren’t just close. We were capable. In our minds, we were the better team. We had an off night,” Thorn said. “We had a halftime lead that had Pat Summitt stressing out. We just had some shots that didn’t go. It wasn’t skill, it wasn’t not having the right people or a mismatch. It was literally missing shots. It was frustrating in the end but you can acknowledge that we were really good.”

The 2002 team finished with a 23-9 record.

The legacy

No doubt, the 2002 team showed everyone what was possible at BYU in terms of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. 

“What Juddy’s so good at is he makes good players into a great team. We’re not getting McDonald’s All-Americans. We’re not,” Day said. “We’d love to start doing that, especially now that we’re going to the Big 12. We’re getting good players that fit into our system and we make a great team out of it. It shows that you can do this without getting McDonald’s All-Americans every year, as long as you have players that will buy into the team.”

Baxter remembers when she arrived at BYU as a freshman in the late 1990s, one of the coaches was talking about going to the Final Four. 

“I thought that was crazy. We hadn’t been to the tournament in years,” she said. “You have to build to do that. Then once you have that breakthrough, it becomes a reality and an expectation of, this is what our program does. It’s such a testament to the coaching, even before Jeff got there, building with recruits that Shippen had. He’s a great basketball coach.

“You have to see it sometimes to think, oh yeah, we do this. This team Juddy has now is legit. I love watching them play. After having a couple of BYU teams go to the Sweet 16, this team is so talented, you’re like, ‘Yeah, this could happen.’ When expectations are set, we’re a program that gets to the Sweet 16, that changes people’s mindsets.”

The BYU faculty advisor that traveled with the team that season was Kevin Worthen, who is now the university president. 

“There were a lot of great people in that room that went about the business of making that kind of a magical run,” Baxter said.

For all of its success on the court, perhaps the real legacy of that 2002 team is reflected in those players, who are now leading successful, happy lives. 

When she was battling cancer several years ago, Day received an outpouring of support from her former BYU teammates, including Chanell Rose, daughter of former BYU coach Dave Rose. 

They rallied around Day and raised money for her and her young family during a difficult period of her life. 

“The Sweet 16 is great and that’s a memory we all carry with us,” Thorn said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the people. It’s the connections you make and the people you share that connection with that make it special.”

Back to the future — 2002 and 2022

Two decades later, that 2002 team is united again in spirit, cheering on the 2022 team. They’re invested in seeing how far these Cougars can go. 

“A lot of things have to go right,” Baxter said. “But the cool thing about this team is, they play the right way. They deserve all good things and I hope everything good happens to them.”

“I’m excited to see what they can do. Hopefully, they can break that next barrier and possibly get into that third weekend,” Thorn said. “That would be awesome.”

The 2002 Cougars will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if the 2022 team can make even more history for the BYU women’s basketball program.

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