Provo • It ended much sooner than planned and not at all how they would have liked, but at least the BYU women's basketball program got something a lot of other teams didn't get: closure.
You see, the Cougars’ season came to an end five days before the NCAA canceled all remaining winter championships and spring championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixth-seeded Pepperdine stunned No. 2 BYU in the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament, and just like that the defending tourney champs were sent home.
“That part of it was nice, that we at least knew where we finished,” coach Jeff Judkins said. “Of course, we wanted to go into the postseason. We felt we had a good chance of going into the NIT [tournament] because we finished second place in the league and they always take the second-place teams in that tournament. So, we kind of knew we were going to go to that.”
The Cougars finished with an 18-11 overall record and 13-5 in WCC play.
It was a drop from last year’s 26-win season when BYU beat conference favorite Gonzaga three times and won the WCC tournament.
Junior Paisley Johnson, who led the Cougars this season with a 15.2 point scoring average, said this year was not what she expected. But that doesn’t mean she was disappointed with how it turned out.
“I do think that things that we don’t expect can really benefit us in the long run,” Johnson said. “Although I wish we could have won the conference tournament and won the league. But I think that just gives us even more fire for next season. I always knew the type of team we had, we just weren’t able to perform in the way I knew we could all the time, which was sad and frustrating.”
But the Cougars also had to readjust to losing Shaylee Gonzales to a season-ending injury over the summer.
The prior season, as a freshman, Gonzales led the team in scoring with 17.0 average and put up double-digit points in 31 games. She scored 20 or more points in nine games. Nationally, Gonzales ranked second among freshmen in points per game and was named the 2018-19 WCC Newcomer of the Year, and selected for the WCC All-Freshman Team, WCC Women’s basketball first team and WCC Championship All-Tournament team.
Yet, even though the loss of Gonzales did throw the team off a bit, Johnson believes any struggles throughout the season were more from not being able to nail down their team identity.
“It just was hard to come out sometimes,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of other things that happened this year, like injuries with other players and coaches getting hurt. Our team definitely went through a lot of adversity and we just pushed through all of that. I think we came closer as a team. I think we all had opportunities.”
The Cougars will need to rediscover themselves once more now that they’ll be without this year’s four seniors — Brenna Drollinger, Jasmine Moody, Shalae Salmon and Khaedin Taito.
Drollinger has been one of the team’s biggest leaders on the court over the years. She also was named to the 2016-17 WCC All Freshman Team, 2017-18 WCC First Team and 2019-20 WCC First Team.
The Colorado native finished finished with career averages of 10.5 points, 3.1 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 0.5 blocks.
“She's going to be hard to replace, she had a great career at BYU,” Judkins said. “… Shalae, Jasmine and Khaedin were major players for us. Jasmine became a real threat and became a real positive player. Shalae had some ups and downs, but for the most part she really worked really hard and did what she needed to do for the team. The thing those seniors did that I appreciated the most was they made sure the team was first and not themselves.”
With so many pieces being removed from the equation and others coming in, it’s hard to tell where the team will find itself next season. But Sara Hamson, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, likes where they are right now.
The Cougars will convert this season into a chip on their shoulder to motivate them to keep getting better.
“That’s the exciting thing about next year, there is less of an expectation,” Hamson said. “I feel like this year we had many expectations that we’d do really well because we had so many returners, but that didn’t work out for us as well. But next year, no one knows what’s going to happen and that’s exciting because we can make whatever we want happen. It just all depends on us and what we choose to do and how hard we work.”