LAS VEGAS — The Utah Valley women's basketball team is going to the NCAA Tournament.
And they didn't have to win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament to wrap it up. Heck, they didn't even play in Saturday's final.
California Baptist improved to 24-0 with a 78-60 win over Grand Canyon in the WAC Tournament title game, becoming the first college basketball program since UConn in 2018 to finish the regular season unbeaten and win a conference tournament. But because the Lancers, who went 14-0 in WAC play, are in the third year of their four-year NCAA transitional period, they won't be going to the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the Wolverines advanced to the NCAA women's basketball tournament courtesy of their No. 2 seed and the league's automatic entry. With a 10-4 finish in the regular season's conference play, Utah Valley clinched the league's regular-season runner up — narrowly holding off GCU for the best-team-not-named-Cal-Baptist title.
Enter Utah Valley, which finished second in league play and edged out the Lopes on winning percentage for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Lopes beat the Wolverines 57-54 in Friday's semifinals after splitting the regular season with one win apiece.
"Obviously it's not a conventional way to go to the tournament, but, you know, it's the rules that were decided," UVU coach Dan Nielson said. "I've been able to be an assistant coach at the NCAA tournament (with BYU) and it's an experience I'd love for my girls to have.
"But I do want to make sure to say that because Cal Baptist has had such a heck of a year, it is a shame they can't go — because they're a really good team."
CBU's Caitlyn Harper was named tournament MVP, leading a five-player selection that included Utah Valley center Josie Williams.
By California Baptist winning Saturday, the Wolverines made their tournament debut. ESPN's Charlie Creme currently projects Utah Valley as a No. 16 seed to face top-seeded Stanford in the tournament, which will be held entirely in the San Antonio area due to COVID-19 protocols.
The final bracket for the NCAA Tournament will be revealed at 5 p.m. MT Monday on ESPN.
Cal Baptist has already accepted a bid to the WNIT, but after the Lancers' 79-54 semifinal win over New Mexico State in the semifinals, they were motivated to win a championship.
"We're right in the middle of it, and obviously it's a big step to set a bar for us," said CBU coach Jarrod Olson after his team improved to 23-0. "But I think every team in the WAC is trying to win the conference regular season, and then the tournament.
"I'm pretty excited that we've gotten this far. We've had a great season, and hopefully we can continue to play well tomorrow. We've got a tough game, but we're just happy we're here and hopefully we're ready to take advantage of it."
The Lopes earned the No. 3 seed in the tournament due to its 8-4 record in conference games. GCU had two games against Chicago State canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and did not make them up, which left Utah Valley with more games — and more winning percentage points — to clinch the No. 2 seed.
The Lopes and Wolverines split the regular-season series played in Orem, first with Utah Valley's 63-51 win on Friday, Feb. 12 before GCU followed with a 72-62 win one night later.
WAC Women's Basketball All-Tournament Team
Tiarra Brown, Grand Canyon
Shania Harper, NM State
Tiena Neale, California Baptist
Josie Williams, Utah Valley
MVP: Caitlyn Harper, California Baptist