From the moment she stepped on campus, Boise State women’s basketball player Brooke Pahukoa had a singular goal: to create a locker room culture where every member of the Broncos felt like she was at home.
It was not always easy. Pahukoa admits she contemplated transferring after her freshman season because things weren’t going the way she hoped.
But as she sat on the bench one last time Saturday surrounded by her Bronco sisters, the lopsided scoreboard at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion was irrelevant. Pahukoa has been one of the architects of a family environment that appears to have Boise State on the verge of taking its next step.
The Broncos lost to UCLA 83-56 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and fell to 0-4 in NCAA games. Boise State (25-8) set a single-season school record for wins, and Pahukoa, Shalen Shaw and Yaiza Rodriguez became the first three Broncos to play in multiple NCAA Tournament games (2015).
“This game doesn’t take away from how proud I am to be a Bronco,” Pahukoa said. “What I’ve been able to do off the court and how I’ve been able to grow as a person and as a woman will be the biggest thing for me. That I will never be able to thank Boise State for enough.”
Boise State was held scoreless the first 4 minutes of the game as UCLA (24-8) jumped out to a 15-0 lead. Freshman Riley Lupfer came off the bench and scored eight points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, that brought Boise State to within eight.
The Broncos cut the deficit to seven early in the second quarter, but a 15-3 run over the next 3 1/2 minutes permanently gave the Bruins a double-digit lead.
While the Broncos shot 30 percent from the field (21-of-70), the Bruins made 58 percent of their attempts (32-of-55). Boise State was outscored 36-17 in the paint despite winning the offensive rebounding battle 22-9.
“They just took it at us really strong. We just weren’t ready to fight back in the first quarter. But after that we got it back together,” redshirt sophomore Marijke Vanderschaaf said. “But we were in so deep we weren’t able to get out.”
UCLA’s All-Pac-12 combination of Jordin Canada and Monique Billings also proved too tough to stop.
Canada scored 15 points and tied a school-record with 16 assists while Billings led all players with 19 points. UCLA shot 58.8 percent from behind the 3-point line (10-of-17) after entering the game at 29.2 percent for the season.
“They shot the 3 extremely well. They got Billings established, and then (Canada) kind of took over,” Boise State head coach Gordy Presnell said. “It was kind of three things that knocked us out, and it’s disappointing.”
The Broncos trailed by as many as 27, and Presnell emptied the bench with 2 minutes remaining.
Despite that, Presnell said he couldn’t have been prouder of his team. Boise State started the season 12-1, then went 3-6 in January before a 10-game winning streak and a Mountain West Tournament championship led the Broncos to Los Angeles.
“This is the team that achieved the most. This is the team that I think reached its potential,” Presnell said. “As a coach at the end, you look back and say, ‘Did we leave anything on the table?’ I don’t believe we did.”
Boise State loses both Pahukoa sisters and Rodriguez to graduation. But returning to the team are Lupfer, Vanderschaaf, Shaw, Marta Herimida and a host of others who combined to score 68 percent of the Broncos’ points Saturday.
Lupfer scored 15 fourth-quarter points in an upset over No. 1 seeded Colorado State at the Mountain West Tournament and finished with 13 Saturday.
“I’ve had those single quarters where I kind of hit my shots,” Lupfer said. “So hopefully next year I can put more of those quarters together to make it a game.”
Pahukoa’s contributions to the program go beyond being the eighth-leading scorer in school history, a two-time Mountain West Tournament champion/MVP and a two-time All-Mountain West selection. To Presnell, Pahukoa and the departing seniors are the reason Boise State’s success is sustainable.
“I’m going to look back, and it’s going to be one of the most fun times in my 30 years because of the people I got to coach and the ability to handle adversity. (They) created an incredible environment. When you have a group of leaders who are like that who are brought up (like that), it made it so fun,” Presnell said. “Brooke Pahukoa is one of a kind.”
The feeling of gratitude is mutual for Pahukoa, who said she plans on living in Boise at least another year. She reminisced back to the first time she met Presnell, when she said she showed up at his office before ever being recruited.
“I knew instantly (that Presnell was) genuine. And it sold me from the moment I met him,” Pahukoa said. “When you’re 18 years old and all these people are recruiting you, you don’t know what’s true. That just spoke everything to me. And he’s been able to be that person that I saw on that first visit my entire career.”
As she left the locker room one final time, Pahukoa could only smile. It wasn’t about points, wins, losses or championships. It was, always has been and always will be, about people.
“I hope I left Boise State better than when I found it,” Pahukoa said. “I think that first (NCAA victory) is coming, because we have that culture and family vibe. It’s coming.”