BYU women’s basketball team opens practice, has lofty goals for upcoming season

(Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey) BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales, the WCC's freshman of the year two years ago, is back after major knee surgery and excited to get going,. The Cougars opened preseason practice on Friday.

Provo • Paisley Harding isn’t sure she’ll get a perm again — her hair is already curly and the dry Utah air made it frizzy — but she does know what she wants out of the upcoming BYU women’s basketball season: to win the West Coast Conference regular-season title, win the conference tournament, get a fifth or sixth seed to the NCAA Tournament and make it to at least the Elite Eight.

No biggie.

The senior guard, who married BYU men’s basketball player Connor Harding over the offseason, and the rest of the team took the first steps toward those goals this week when the Cougars were able to start practice for the upcoming 2020-21 season.

“Obviously, last year, we had quite a few hiccups in the road that cost us that opportunity,” Harding said. “But this year I think that is more than a possibility for us, especially if the tournament continues to be put on.”

Along with Harding, one of the Cougars' key pieces to getting back to the NCAA Tournament is Shaylee Gonzales.

The redshirt sophomore sat out last season with an ACL injury, but had put up great numbers for BYU the year prior. The Gilbert, Arizona, native averaged a team-high 17.0 points per game (45.1 FG%) and second-best 5.6 rebounds.

Now, Gonzales said her knee is feeling great, just like normal, and she is hoping to have the knee brace fully off by the time the season starts.

“I’m slowly trying to get rid of it, not wearing it in half-court play or skill,” Gonzales said. “So, hopefully, I’ll be able to do that to not wear it during the season, which I’m excited about because I feel like it holds me back a little bit.”

But before the season starts, coach Jeff Judkins is taking advantage of this practice portion of the year. He used to hate the weeks of practice before the start of a season as an assistant coach, but that period has now become one of his favorites. This is the time he’s preparing his team, getting them ready to take on the season. There’s no complaints about minutes played, but there’s still plenty of competition as players vie for starting jobs.

Through the first few days of team practices, Judkins, who’s entering his 20th season as BYU coach, said he’s noticed just how smart his athletes are.

“And what I mean by that is they pick things up very, very quickly and they execute on the fly,” he said. “We have a lot of depth, which I haven’t had for quite a while. … I got players that can play different positions with that depth.”

The Cougars will start conference play Dec. 28 with a home game against San Francisco and will play an 18-game slate, ending with a two-game road trip at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

The nonconference portion of the schedule is nearly ready, but still needs two more games to be locked down. Judkins is fairly certain BYU will start at a tournament in Las Vegas and will probably first play LSU and UT Martin.

While the Cougars still have parts of their schedule up in the air, Judkins believes his players put in great work over the pandemic-plagued offseason to put themselves in a good position moving forward.

“They’re excited to start practicing and doing it, but they’re ready to go," Judkins said. "And we’ve been through a lot already. We’ve been through some tough, tough times before this season’s even started and hopefully that will make us a lot better as a team.”

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