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A Look Back at BYU’s NCAA Tournament Run in 1981

The last time BYU was a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they made the deepest run in school history.

BYU is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Mark Pope’s squad goes into March Madness with a 20-6 record and ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25. On Selection Sunday, the Cougars heard their name and they were slotted as a No. 6 seed. This marks the first time BYU has received a single-digit seed since Jimmer Fredette led the 2011 squad to a No. 3 seed.

In program history, BYU has been pegged as the No. 6 seed one other time, in 1981. For the more veteran Cougar fans, that was a magical season. It often gets compared to the 2011 team as the best teams in BYU basketball history.

Consensus All-American, WAC Player of the Year, and John Wooden Award winner Danny Ainge led the Cougars to a 25-7 record in 1981 ahead of the tournament. As the 6 seed, BYU faced off against No. 11 Princeton in the first round. Ainge and Fred Roberts combined for 40 points in the 60-51 victory over the Tigers.

Next up was UCLA, coached by Larry Brown. The Bruins entered the tournament ranked No. 10 in the country and a No. 3 seed in the tournament. Ainge ended up having one of the best games of his career, with 37 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals all while having a sore back, in the blowout 78-55 win to advance to the Sweet 16.

No. 2 seed Notre Dame dispatched of James Madison to advance and face BYU. The Irish were 23-6 in the regular season and entered the tournament at No. 7 in the AP poll. Notre Dame was favored in the game against the pesky Cougars. This didn’t scare Ainge, who was already a professional baseball player and didn’t mind the challenge.

The Sweet 16 matchup was an epic battle. The game went back-and-forth until the very last play. With the Irish ahead 50-49 with seven seconds left, BYU coach Frank Arnold called a timeout to draw up the perfect play. Instead, Ainge, one of the best basketball players in the entire country that season, took the ball out of the inbound and streaked across the court. He dodged and darted his way through a somewhat stunned Notre Dame defense all the way to the basket, where he sunk a finger-roll layup just two seconds before the buzzer sounded. The Irish never had a chance to respond as the clock bled out to zero, sending the Cougars to their first ever Elite Eight appearance and Cougar nation into a frenzy. As a 6 seed, they had defeated two teams with better seeding to reach the regional final.

The magical run would end in that regional final against Virginia. The Cavaliers defeated BYU 74-60, abruptly ending the Cougars’ hopes at a Final Four bid, which still eludes them to this day. BYU has only advanced to the Sweet 16 once since that unlikely season.

40 years later, that is still the farthest BYU has gone in the NCAA Tournament. The team in 2011 fell just short, losing to Florida in the Sweet 16 in overtime. While this year’s version does not have a national player of the year like Ainge or Fredette, this team has plenty of moxie and spirit that could see them go far in the 2021 tournament. After all, they took the consensus No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Gonzaga, right down to the wire in the WCC tournament final. After that, nothing should scare the Cougars.

It’s fitting, perhaps even poetic, that BYU once again is a 6 seed, 40 years after being slotted in such a seed for the first time. Instead of Notre Dame and UCLA standing in the way, this year, it’s teams like Texas, Alabama and Michigan in their region. First thing’s first however, as they need to get past the winner of the play-in game between Michigan State and UCLA. Does BYU have another magical run in them? At least they have a little history on their side.