Provo • Last year, BYU had something to prove going into the West Coast Conference tournament. As did Paisley Johnson.
This season may not have gone the way the team envisioned, but the goal is still the same.
The Cougars are looking to defend their WCC Tournament title when they get into action on Saturday. BYU (18-10, 13-5 WCC) will face No. 6 Pepperdine in the quarterfinals.
“I think there’s pressure on us the whole year because I think everybody, their goal is to beat us for some reason,” coach Jeff Judkins said. “It is a little bit of pressure [going in as the defending champions], but I think players, good players, step up to pressure. They love that.”
A year ago, the Cougars were the only team to beat Gonzaga in the regular season. The Zags were still able to close out as regular season champs, leaving BYU to earn a No. 2 seed in the tourney. But the Cougars felt they had what it takes to prove that they were the superior team. Paisley also felt snubbed by the league when the All-WCC honors came out, and wanted to prove she deserved to make the first team.
So, BYU went out and won the championship and Johnson was named the WCC Tournament MVP.
As the WCC Tournament defending champions, BYU's coming into the postseason a little more worse for wear.
BYU VS. SAINT MARY’S OR PEPPERDINE
At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
When • Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
TV • ATTSN (Tape delay)
The Cougars lost one of their best shooters in Shaylee Gonzales when the sophomore suffered a torn ACL during the summer, resulting in her redshirting this season. As a freshman, Gonzales averaged 17 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals.
It took a while to adjust on the court without Gonzales, but it seems the Cougars have finally found their groove — and just in time for the postseason. BYU won five of its last six games to close out the regular season — their sole loss coming from a two-point heartbreaker in San Francisco.
“I definitely feel like, personally for me, I’m starting to hit that stride where it’s starting to finally feel easy for me to get my opportunities on the offensive side,” Johnson said. “So that’s super excited for me, and I know I see that in Brenna [Drollinger] and Maria [Albiero]. Maria has been playing amazing this end of the season, so I think we’ll just continue.”
However, Judkins knows his two top guards — Drollinger and Johnson — will need to step up. Luckily, Judkins believes he has the best pair of tandem guards in the league.
The senior and junior, respectively, were both named to the All-WCC First Team earlier this week.
“I think Brenna can be the best player on the floor, hands down,” Judkins said. “So can Paisley. I think both of them really want to have a great tournament and they’ve got to play well for us to win. No question. Last year, not as much because we had Shaylee — we had three of them. If one didn’t play, that didn’t hurt us. But these two gotta show up.”
The Cougars will also look to lean on the team's experience to get them through the tournament. Of the seven players that average a minimum of 14 minutes, three are juniors and three are seniors. The other is a sophomore.
So, they're all familiar with what it takes to win the championship.
“It’s just a good opportunity for us to use that advantage and not get too excited about the crowds,” Johnson said. “We played at Gonzaga with the whole arena sold out and we played just fine. We like that energy, we feed off of it, so I think that’s not going to bug us. I think the way the arena is set up is a lot like the Marriott [Center], so I don’t think that’s going to bug us. So, I think it’s a good fit for us, especially playing in the Orleans.”