OREM — Utah Valley University's women's basketball clinched its first berth in the NCAA Tournament through unique circumstances — without winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, or even the regular season.
Their "welcome-to-the-dance" reward? One of the 64-team tournament's top seeds.
No. 16-seeded Utah Valley will open the tournament Sunday at 8 p.m. MDT against No. 1 Stanford (ESPN). The Cardinal are one of the top teams in women's basketball, with a No. 4 national ranking and 24-2 record. But the Wolverines are just happy to be there.
The Wolverines earned their inaugural tournament bid after undefeated California Baptist won the conference tournament in the Lancers' third year of a four-year NCAA transition. So they knew they were going, and after practice and a workout, they gathered in the Nuvi basketball facility on campus to see where they dropped on the bracket.
And then they waited. And waited. ESPN didn't do them many favors, revealing the Stanford-led Alamo region in the last segment of the half-hour selection show.
"We kind of thought we would be one of the first teams announced, and as it went on, we kind of got a little antsy," UVU center Josie Williams said. "The whole day has been weird; we had practiced, lifted, did some school work — but we had this to be looking forward to. We're just so excited."
Maybe the buildup should have been expected for the Wolverines, who were picked to win the WAC by league coaches before losing to California Baptist in December and rallying for a second-place finish in the league. They took that No. 2 seed into the WAC Tournament, where they lost to Grand Canyon after a win over Chicago State in the opener, and have had to sit on that loss since Thursday.
Now they get to put it behind them and prepare for another game.
"It's been kind of a roller coaster of emotion," Williams said. "We're just excited to play and to have this opportunity that we've been talking about all year."
And what a game it is. Led by 35th-year head coach Tara VanDerveer, Stanford is among the highest of elite programs in women's basketball. The Cardinal have two NCAA championships, two more runner-up finishes and 13 women's Final Four appearances. They've made every NCAA Tournament since 1988, and have made it past the first round every year since 2007.
"Stanford is a heck of a team," UVU coach Dan Nielson said. "I was on the staff at BYU (who also made the tournament, as an 11-seed) when we played them in the tournament, and Tara VanDerveer is a legend. We're excited to compete against them and give them everything we got."
CBU, which moved to 25-0 on the year with its win over Grand Canyon in the WAC Tournament final, is in its third year transitioning to NCAA Division I and not yet eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The WAC council of league athletic directors, senior woman administrators, and faculty athlete representatives initially voted prior to the conference season that should California Baptist win both the WAC regular season and tournament, the team that finished second in the regular season would represent the league. That vote was later supported by the league presidents.
California Baptist, which has accepted a bid to the WNIT, will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament beginning with the 2022-23 season.
Utah Valley (13-6) clinched the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament by virtue of a 10-4 mark in WAC play, edging out Grand Canyon — the second-place team in the WAC Tournament.
Nielson was complimentary of the Lancers' undefeated season, while adding his squad hopes to represent the conference well in its trip to San Antonio. But playing in the NCAA Tournament is every player's dream — even at UVU. Their qualification was different — but so, too, is the COVID-19-impacted season of 2020-21.
"I think it would be silly if we don't give credit to Cal Baptist, who obviously earned this spot and had an amazing season at 25-0. We don't make the rules, but we finished second and that team got to go," Neilson said.
"It's a little different NCAA Tournament, but from the moment we took the job, we talked about this goal."
While the experience may be new to the players, it isn't to Neilson. He was an assistant coach with BYU three years ago when they went to the tournament and upset Auburn in the Palo Alto subregional before falling to Stanford. His staff, too, is filled with former BYU players and assistants — Ashley Garfield, Morgan Bailey and Keilani Unga — who have experience in the game's highest level.
They'll learn on that plenty.
"Dan's a great coach. He learned a lot, and was a great assistant for me," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "He knows what it takes, and he's got a lot of my ex-players who have been there.
"He was smart. He knew what would happen in the conference, and he did a great job of scheduling his games and doing what they needed to do. He's always been one step ahead that way. This is exciting for Utah Valley; first time they've been in the NCAA Tournament — it's a lot of great accomplishments. I think they're running into a buzzsaw in Stanford … but who knows? That's what makes the tournament so exciting, is anybody can beat anybody on almost any given night."
Every game of the NCAA women's tournament will be played in the San Antonio area, from March 21 through April 4. Bracket regions are named for San Antonio landmarks — Alamo, River Walk, Hemisfair and Mercado — and will be televised by one of the ESPN networks.
North Carolina State earned the No. 1 overall seed, followed by South Carolina, Stanford and Connecticut, whose coach Geno Auriemma tested positive for COVID-19 and will likely miss the opening weekend with the Huskies.