Los Angeles • The Cougars have talked plenty about staring down anxiety on college basketball’s biggest stage. But on Saturday night, they’ll likely face pressure in a more literal sense.
BYU (26-6, 14-4) has had trouble with defensive pressure on guards — you could call it their Achilles heel.
In the Cougars’ last loss to Gonzaga in the WCC championship, they coughed up 21 turnovers, which was good for a minus-10 margin in that particular stat. When they can’t feed the post and leading scorer Jen Hamson, trouble brews.
“They know that’s how we’re going to be beat by putting pressure on our guards and not being able to get the ball into Jen,” senior guard Kim Beeston said. “We’ve worked on that.”
Winning the turnover battle and taking care of the ball will be a huge challenge for BYU, which ranks 306th in the nation in turnover margin. By comparison, NC State has improved its ballhandling on the tail end of the season, not giving up any more than 11 in each of its past four games. The Wolfpack pick up 7.8 steals per game on the defensive end.
Coach Jeff Judkins placed special emphasis on the team’s weaknesses, including handling pressure. The Cougars have used male players to simulate the feeling of smothering defenders. But time will tell if BYU can hold onto the ball better than the last time out.
“We feel we’ve worked on it and it’s kind of better — hopefully we can do it,” Judkins said. “It’s kind of like you prepare, but until that moment comes and you have to be able to perform, you don’t know it until you get out there.
Survival of the foul-less?
BYU and NC State share numerous similarities, but one of those neither would like to have is inside depth — well, lack thereof.
Each team boasts a dominant post player: BYU has the lanky Hamson, while the Wolfpack leans on Markeisha Gatling to create her own space inside. Both are strong scorers, both are strong rebounders. But behind those two, there aren’t many players who can replace that production.
Therefore, Judkins said, one of the biggest deciding factors may be whose big can avoid foul trouble and stay on the court. Getting an edge in the post would be a huge factor for either team.
“I think both of us kind of have something up our sleeves if it happens, but we hope we don’t have to,” he said. “We hope the referees will let us play.”
Hamson was a late-bloomer
Friday’s team news conference brought out some reflection from Hamson — reflection on how she almost never played basketball at all.
The daughter of four-time BYU All-American Tresa Spaulding didn’t take much to basketball as a child. Recalled Hamson: “I kind of hated it.” In an abbreviated recount, Hamson remembered how her mother gently nudged her in the direction of the hoops court once she hit a growth spurt.
“We bonded over basketball, and she has helped me so much improve my game,” she said. “It is so fun to have her around and her opinion.”
Women’s NCAA Tournament
O No. 12 BYU vs. No. 5 N.C. State
At Los Angeles
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN2