Midnight came early for the Cinderella band, but BYU seniors took the program to a new high

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BYU guard Paisley Harding (13) drives as Villanova guard Bella Runyan, right, defends during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Paisley Harding didn’t want it to end, or at least not like this.

The fifth-year senior didn’t return to BYU for one final qualifying season — a season she wasn’t supposed to have when she enlisted in her sophomore year of high school, but she gladly accepted when the NCAA offered her in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — just to be bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

His final season was supposed to end in glory, in a deep run in the tournament, perhaps tying a BYU record in the Sweet 16 — or maybe even deeper.

Harding did everything she could to make that happen, scoring a team-high 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting, reaching the free throw line eight times and adding four rebounds, three assists and a steal against Villanova. , 11th seed. .

Sometimes, however, even a fifth-year senior’s relentless willpower isn’t enough. Sometimes the Herculean effort comes from the other side – in this case, Big East Player of the Year, Maddy Siegrist.

Sometimes the clock strikes midnight before Cinderella makes it to the ball, as was the case Saturday afternoon at the Crisler Center when Villanova toppled No. 20 BYU, 61-57.

There’s a danger in putting too much emphasis on the NCAA Tournament, where one game can spell the end of a season and upsets abound. It’s part of the excitement of March, the madness of March – and also the sadness of March.

In Harding’s career, she’s lived through all three emotions, with playoff breakthroughs and eventual disappointments. Saturday was more heartbreaking.

And even …

“The season has meant the world to me,” she said, with barely a wave of emotion and no tears in sight. “It’s been such a fun season.

“This program is amazing. I couldn’t have asked to go to any other university and have an experience like this. I was raised as a young freshman to this young, aspiring, intelligent, and great, and able to play on the basketball court because of this program, because of the university I went to and because of the coaches who helped me, pushed me and trusted me.

Harding was a focal point of Villanova’s game plan, and she still scored 21. The Wildcats were “just trying the best we could” to deny her assets, to force her into screens rather than around them and through them – a total team effort – head coach Denise Dillon said.

And yet, she still scored 21. It was almost enough, but no moral wins here for 26-4 BYU.

Even without the happy ending to the NCAA Tournament, Harding’s senior season was filled with highs greater than anything the Cougars have ever seen.

BYU achieved its highest national ranking in program history, spent 16 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 – nearly doubling the previous program – the best of nine established in 2006 – and finished with a record program of 26 victories, including 25 in the regular season. en route to the conference’s first regular season title since 2016. It all led to a No. 6 seed in the big dance, the highest seed in program history.

Even without the happy ending, the happiness was in the journey.

“This whole season has meant everything to me,” Harding said. “These girls are something special. I don’t think you can find any other team in this country that is as close, tight-knit and loving as mine.”

Harding’s incredible career ended on the floor inside University of Michigan Stadium, a somber note on a remarkable journey through Provo. The Everett, Wash., native was one of only two BYU players to score in double figures against Villanova — fellow senior Tegan Graham was the other, with 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting, including three 3-pointers .

BYU guard Maria Albiero (5) drives as Villanova forward Brianna Herlihy (14) defends during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2022, at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
BYU guard Maria Albiero (5) drives as Villanova forward Brianna Herlihy (14) defends during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2022, at Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo: Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

Harding ends her five-year career with the most games played in BYU women’s basketball history, tied with teammate Maria Albiero at 146. She scored 1,938 points – the sixth most points in BYU history – buried 217 3-pointers, put down 475 rebounds, dished out 374 assists and took way too many charges to count.

But much of his career cannot be summed up in numbers or statistics.

“You notice when the game gets more physical, Paisley steps it up. His strength and stamina are unbelievable,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said of his senior captain. “She’s the very hard working child and she says how she feels. I think it’s been very positive for a lot of young children to see that. When one of your best players works the hardest, It really sets the tone for what this team is.”

Harding’s career is over, but her legacy lives on in the form of a freshman class she took under her wing, including a group of standout guards like former East High star Nani Falatea and New Zealand-born Arielle Mackey-Williams, who will be loaded by picking up where she left off.

It can be difficult for any player to adequately replace Harding. Then again, the former Paisley Johnson might not have been able to replace the current Paisley Harding on the face of it either.

The greatest compliment Judkins could give her was this.

“Paisley has gotten better every year,” he said. “There aren’t many players you can say that about, but you can say it with her. She improved some of her game.

“I just wish she was 6ft instead of 5-8; it would have made a big difference. But she is one of the best I have coached. NCAA and in really big games. I thought tonight she played one of her best games for us.”

So ends an electric senior class at BYU, a class that went through a pandemic and then got another college basketball season because of it. From Harding and sniper Graham to point guard Albiero and 6-foot-7 tackle Sara Hamson, the group came together and tried to do something special at BYU.

Their hope was to do something special on the court, leading the Cougars to a spot in the Sweet 16, or an Elite Eight bid, or – why not dream big, they always said – a Final Four appearance.

Maybe the special thing about this team is not what they did on the pitch.

“The culture of this team is unique,” said the former Pleasant Grove star. “I grew up playing all kinds of sports and I’ve been on so many teams. This team is so full of love, and we’re ready to push each other in training and competing. But at the end of the day, we still enjoy being around each other.

“The season ended up being shorter than they would have liked. But in the end, we created memories we will cherish forever and friendships we will live with forever.”

As Judkins prepares for the next stage of his program — he’s bringing back a team that still includes two-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales and two-timer Lauren Gustin, after all — he’ll also take a moment to reflect on this season.

Even without the ending the Cougars always wanted, it was still one for the history books.

“I will look back and remember the good things we had this year. They were a fun team to coach,” he said. “As a coach you don’t always understand that. Sometimes your teams are hard to motivate, hard to get them to do the things you want them to do.

“This team was the opposite. They were easy to motivate, they worked hard, they did whatever it took to make this team successful. It’s going to be tough. I’m going to go back and say we have to train – and there will be no practice. But that’s the hardest part; the tournament, a team comes out smiling; everyone loses, and it’s hard. But that’s what makes victory and what makes success so important. When you lose, it doesn’t change anything. I don’t feel good and it hurts – so you push yourself to do your best.”

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