BYU is excited to be back in the Big Dance, but has a tall order against Rutgers in the first round

The 11th-seeded Cougars will take on sixth-seeded Scarlet Knights on Monday.

BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales, right, dives for a loose ball under Auburn guard Brooke Moore 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)

Even before the pandemic canceled last year’s postseason, the BYU women’s basketball team was disappointed with its performance throughout the season. It wasn’t strong enough to get the Cougars into the NCAA Tournament.

So, they knew they would have to do better this time around. And they did.

BYU was among the last four teams in, but that doesn’t matter anymore — the Cougars are part of March Madness.

On Monday, 11th-seeded BYU will take on sixth-seeded Rutgers in the first round.

“With COVID, there’s been a lot of different restrictions and whatnot, but so far it’s been a great experience,” sophomore Lauren Gustin said. “Just having it be my first time [going to the NCAA Tournament], I think it’s been super exciting and it’s nice and I’m just excited to play.”

Rutgers is led by redshirt senior Arella Guirantes, who is averaging 20.8 points and 6.0 rebounds, as well as 1.8 blocks and 2.11 steals. Guirantes is projected as a first-round pick in the 2021 WNBA draft.

BYU coach Jeff Judkins knows the Rutgers star will prove to be a difficult obstacle against his Cougars.

“She’s a special player, so we’re going to have our hands full,” Judkins said. “But we’ve played against people like this before … So we’ve got some things that we’re going to try to do and try to stop her and not let her get going.”

While Rutgers may not be quite as aggressive as some other teams BYU has played this year, the Scarlet Knights are bigger and more athletic. However, Judkins thinks Rutgers may try more press against the Cougars as a means to beat them.

What may also benefit BYU is that Rutgers doesn’t have a lot of depth; only six players average more than 10 minutes. BYU is only a little better in that department — seven Cougars average more than 10 minutes.

“We’re going to hope we can defend them and get them out of rhythm,” Judkins said.

BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales went to the NCAA Tournament her freshman year, but sat out last season with an ACL injury. In her second year back playing for the Cougars, she’s back in the Big Dance — a goal she had in mind to achieve each year of her collegiate career.

Gonzales, who leads the team in scoring with 17.9 points per game, is pulling from her previous March Madness experience to prepare for the first-round game against Rutgers. The sophomore believes Auburn, which the Cougars played in the first round two years ago, and Rutgers have a lot of similarities.

One of the biggest differences within the BYU program now as compared to their 2019 trip to the NCAA Tournament, Gonzales said, is the team chemistry, which is a lot better.

“I definitely feel like I can compare these two teams, Auburn and Rutgers, to each other because they’re so athletic, so long,” Gonzales said. “Auburn did press us a lot and that’s what Rutgers is going to do as well. So, in practice this past week, we’ve been working on our press breaker and just expecting that they’re going to come in and try to speed us up, get lots of turnovers.”

The Cougars traveled to San Antonio on Tuesday and have been in a bubble since then, working out in the hall on their floor of the hotel and only going outside for limited times. Either way, BYU is happy to be back dancing and to take the floor on Monday against Rutgers.

“I’m just trying to soak up every single moment because this experience that we’re experiencing, not a lot of people get to experience it,” Gonzales said. “[It’s] super special. And I’m just trying to make every moment worth it and just trying to not be too uptight right now.”

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