With ‘most complete team,’ BYU women’s basketball is ‘in the hunt’ to get back to the NCAA Tournament

The Cougars will wrap up the regular season at Santa Clara and San Francisco.

Auburn guard Daisa Alexander, center, reaches for the ball between BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales, left, and guard Paisley Johnson during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Provo • Last season, Shaylee Gonzales sat on the sidelines recovering from an ACL injury as she saw her team’s season come to an unceremonious end.

Sixth-seeded Pepperdine upset the No. 3 Cougars in the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference. While not returning to the NCAA Tournament, BYU was hoping to still get into a postseason tournament when all remaining games were canceled due to the pandemic.

Gonzales didn’t like the way the season ended for the Cougars and vowed to help her team get back to the success they accomplished her freshman season. And they have.

“After last season, I told myself I didn’t want that to happen again and I wanted to get my team on the right path,” Gonzales said. “And I think that as a team we have done that.”

With a pair of wins this week, the Cougars would close out the regular season on a nine-game win streak. It would also have BYU contending for a No. 1 seed in the WCC Tournament and possibly earn the Cougars a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But to nail down its postseason fate, BYU will need to get through Santa Clara and San Francisco on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Redshirt sophomore and break-out star Lauren Gustin is hoping the team can close out strong, preferrably with a pair of blowout wins so they can get ready for the WCC Tournament and keep the momentum going.

“All our energy has to go into Thursday and then into Saturday before we can move on to the tournament,” Gustin said.

So, how did the Cougars find themselves back on track to return to the NCAA Tournament?

The simple answer is a mix of having Paisley Harding as a starting returner, Gonzales back from injury and the addition of Gustin. Those three starters are responsible for more than 60% of the team’s offensive production; Gonzales is averaging a team-high 18.1 points, Harding is averaging 13.6 points and Gustin is averaging 12.3 points.

Gustin is also the only Cougar currently averaging a double-double with 12.9 rebounds.

But coach Jeff Judkins also believes this is the most complete team he’s had, maybe ever.

The depth on the roster doesn’t just translate to more available players, but more available positions. The long-time coach has plenty of players that can be moved around into different roles.

“This is the most balanced team that I’ve had,” Judkins said. “What I mean by that is, not so much scoring, it’s balance of lineups. I can play big, I can play small, I can play average. I’ve got shooters, I’ve got bigs that are good inside, bigs that can shoot. … From the years I’ve coached here, I’ve probably got as good a combination of different things with this team, better than any team that I’ve had.”

Now, Judkins will take the final two regular season games to prepare for the WCC Tournament, and eventually the NCAA Tournament. Luckily, Judkins believes his Cougars are playing better than they were the last time they faced Santa Clara and San Francisco.

“Every game means something,” Judkins said. “We’re not like a Power Five [team] that can lose all these games and go in as a sixth place team. We have to continue to keep winning and keep doing things that we need to keep us in the hunt for [the NCAA Tournament].”