'What we're building here': BYU women end season with WNIT loss to Owls

BYU forward Lauren Gustin (12) reaches for a pass in front of Rice Owls forwards India Bellamy (12) and Ashlee Austin (22) during a Women’s National Invitation Tournament basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. BYU lost 71-67.

BYU forward Lauren Gustin (12) reaches for a pass in front of Rice Owls forwards India Bellamy (12) and Ashlee Austin (22) during a Women’s National Invitation Tournament basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. BYU lost 71-67. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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PROVO — This is how BYU women's basketball will enter the Big 12 beginning on July 1.

But on Friday night, the Cougars were met with a big deficit against a Texas-based team, a furious rally, and heap of heartbreak in the final game of the 2022-23 season.

Dominique Ennis scored 13 points and India Bellamy added 12 as the Owls held on for a wire-to-wire win over BYU 71-67 in a postseason women's NIT first-round game at the Marriott Center.

Katelyn Crosthwait had 10 points, nine rebounds and three assists for Rice (23-8).

Lauren Gustin led BYU (16-17) with 20 points and 19 rebounds, and Nani Falatea added 20 points, four rebounds and five assists. Gustin finished with 552 total rebounds, 12 short of surpassing George Mason's Natalie Butler for the NCAA all-time single-season record set in 2018.

"It would have been awesome to hit," said Gustin, a junior who will graduate in April but said she was "planning to" return for her senior year in the Big 12. "But I just wanted to get the win.

"There's always next year."

Ari Mackey-Williams and Kaylee Smiler each scored 10 points for the Cougars, who overcame a 13-point deficit and trailed by as little as 3 in the final minute before adding loss No. 17 — the most in BYU women's basketball history since 1996-97, and only a year removed from 26-4 finish under former coach Jeff Judkins. That includes losses in five of the last seven games, with two to NCAA Tournament-bound Gonzaga in that span.

The Cougars expected a rough start under first-time head coach Amber Whiting, who retooled a roster that lost four key seniors from last year as well as leading scorer and two-time WCC Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales to Texas after Judkins' retirement. BYU rebuilt around Gustin, one of the nation's top rebounders nationally, and an increased scoring load from Falatea, who averaged more than 15 points per game while averaging 34.9 minutes per game.

No other player averaged double-digit scoring, led by Mackey-Williams' 8.8 points per game, 7.2 from Kaylee Smiler and 7.0 from Emma Calvert. But what they lacked in output and returning experience, the young squad of upstarts under a first-time collegiate coach made up in fight and grit, Whiting said.

That was apparent Friday night, too.

"I'm really proud of my girls, for how they finished that game," Whiting said. "We got down 10-0, and they could've folded and turned on each other. But they didn't.

"I think that says a lot about their character and a lot about what we're building here."

Rice entered the game averaging 72.3 points per game during a 22-8 season. The Owls flexed those offensive muscles early, shooting 42% from the field on balanced scoring to lead the host Cougars 18-13 after the first quarter.

Rice, which entered the game averaging 72.3 points across a 22-8 season, got 10 points and four rebounds from freshman center Shelby Hayes and shot 46% from the field with four 3-pointers en route to a 38-27 halftime lead.

Gustin had 11 points and 10 rebounds at the half — her 27th double-double in 32 games — to lead the Cougars, who got 7 points from Falatea but assisted on just 6-of-12 made baskets.

Then came the fight.

BYU held Rice to just 4-of-16 shooting in the third, and Falatea scored 6 during a 14-7 run to pull the Cougars within five, 46-41. Bellamy beat the buzzer with a 3 to lift the Owls to a 48-41 lead going into the fourth quarter, but Rice couldn't pull away, either.

When Mackey-Williams drove inside to cut the deficit within 58-52 with just over five minutes remaining, the well-attended home crowd supporting a .500 team on a Friday night in Provo stood on its collective feet. That forced a wild jumper from the Owls, and Mackey-Williams repeated with a 3-pointer moments later to cut the deficit to one possession, 58-55 with 4:53 remaining.

With a minute left, Crosthwait missed a 3 — and badly — but turned to the ref and her coach on the sideline, calling for a foul. That left Smiler wide open on the other end, and the New Zealand international quickly drained a 3 to pull the Cougars back within three, 68-65, with 43 seconds left.

BYU had two chances to tie in the final 30 seconds, but 3-point attempts by Mackey-Williams and Falatea rimmed out and the Owls held on to advance to the Round of 32.

"None of us like to lose or want to lose," Gustin said. "It's definitely upsetting; It's the end of the season now. I think it's definitely heartbreaking. It sucks.

"I'm proud of us girls for fighting and for staying together. But it hurts."


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