Provo • No fewer than six players are from foreign countries, another joined the BYU women’s basketball team late after a successful college softball career and one of the most highly recruited prospects in recent memory came aboard with all kinds of hype and heightened expectations, partly because she already had more than 10,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel.
Longtime coach Jeff Judkins looked at his team back in October and almost immediately worried about chemistry. Could this group — perhaps the most diverse of any BYU team ever — become unified and play together?
Those doubts lingered in November when the the Cougars were blown out 70-52 by California at the Marriott Center, lost 67-64 at Southern Utah and then fell hard at rival Utah 78-67 on Dec. 8 to drop to 6-3.
Don’t look now, but BYU (17-3, 9-0 in the WCC), hasn’t lost since.
“We have great team chemistry, and it is really easy to play with each other,” said guard Brenna Chase, a junior with a 12.4 scoring average who was expected to be the team’s leading scorer until freshman star Shaylee Gonzales (17.3 ppg.) came along and picked up points as quickly as she picked up social media followers. “It is just fun. We like to joke around a lot. … We have a lot of girls who like to dance and have fun and it is a really close team already.”
NO. 25 BYU AT LOYOLA MARYMOUNT
When • Thursday, 6 p.m. MST
Streaming • BYUcougars.com
The Cougars have reeled off 11 straight wins, the third-best streak in school history, and were rewarded Monday with a No. 25 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, their first appearance in a national poll since 2012. Curiously, they haven’t received a single vote in the coaches' poll.
“It means our program is getting back where we were,” said Judkins, who guided the program to an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance in 2014 and NCAA first-round appearances in 2015 and 2016 before missing out the past two years. “We have won a lot of close games this year. That shows a lot of the maturity, and their trust in each other and trust in the coaching staff. You win those games and it really helps you.”
Walk-on senior guard Caitlyn Alldredge, the 2016 WCC Player of the Year — in women’s softball — was a bit worried about disrupting that togetherness when she joined the team last summer. Instead, she’s added to the unity, provided a defensive presence, and brought some leadership and experience from another sport “where maybe it isn’t as difficult to get along because you don’t get the physical contact in practice like you do in basketball,” she said.
After the Cougars went 16-14 last year, didn’t even get a bid to the WNIT and lost high-scoring guard Cassie Broadhead Devashrayee to graduation, BYU was picked to finish third in the WCC preseason poll behind two teams it has already defeated, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Most observers said it would be a rebuilding year.
But not the people who wear the jerseys and coach the team that includes three New Zealanders (Shalae Salmon, Kaylee Smiler, Khaedin Taito), two Brazilians (Maria Albiero, Babalu Ugwu) and a Swede (Sign Glantz).
“We are just a different team this year,” said Chase. “We knew we weren’t going to maybe have one star player like we did last year where Cassie was scoring 30-plus points a game. This year I feel like it is a lot more oriented on multiple people, which is great. So instead of taking it as a rebuilding year, like a lot of people said it would be, we decided we wanted to make it our year.”
That they have.
Rebuilding talk was dunked for good when the Cougars beat SMC 74-73 in Moraga and followed that with a 70-68 upset win over then-No. 13 Gonzaga in Provo.
“These guys really like each other,” Judkins said. “Like [No. 14] Utah, I heard them say, ‘we are just close this year.’ We are that way, too. In women’s basketball, and women’s athletics in general, that’s a big part. That chemistry with each other is big.”
Of course, excellent players help, and the Cougars have several in Chase, sophomore guard Paisley Johnson (14.1 ppg.) and Gonzales.
“No question, Shaylee [Gonzales] has been more than we anticipated,” Judkins said. “She’s got the best feel of any freshman I have ever had here. That’s saying a lot.”
MORE ON THE COUGARS
• They are ranked for first time since Feb. 23, 2012, when they were No. 23 in AP Top 25
• The Cougars have won 11 straight games since losing 87-76 at No. 14 Utah on Dec. 8
• Freshman guard Shaylee Gonzales leads them in scoring with a 17.3 average
• They upset then-No. 13 Gonzaga 70-68 in Provo to move to the top of the WCC standings