Two days after pulling off the first upset of the NCAA Tournament, BYU is facing its biggest opponent of the season: third-seeded Arizona.
The Wildcats coasted past Stony Brook in the first round and go into a cat fight against the Cougars in the Round of 32 on Wednesday. But can BYU pull off another upset?
BYU coach Jeff Judkins certainly believes his team can reproduce the magic from Monday’s game against Rutgers, but knows it will come down to who’s more hungry for it.
“That’s something you don’t know until that ball goes up,” Judkins said. “We’ve talked about that. We talked about how much do we want it? Who wants it the most?”
BYU VS. ARIZONA
When • Wednesday, 5 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU
After missing out on the NCAA Tournament two years ago, the Wildcats went on to win the WNIT — quickly proving their star power. Arizona was expected to make a championship run in last year’s March Madness, but never got the chance due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, although seeded lower than they would have been last year, the Wildcats still have the same mentality: win the national title.
Judkins acknowledged that it’s tough for Cinderella teams to make a deep run in the NCAA tourney because they have to play multiple games of high intensity, which is hard to maintain. The key, he said, is to manage the high emotions that come in a tournament setting.
“The other night, Paisley [Harding] had her game,” Judkins said. “Maybe, hopefully, tomorrow somebody else will step up for us and have a really good game and maybe do that. Arizona is the same way. They’ve had players that have stepped up in each one of their games that I’ve watched.”
BYU’s biggest obstacles against Arizona will be to break through the Wildcats’ rugged, pressure defense and simultaneously lock down All-American Aari McDonald, who will enter the WNBA draft after this season.
The Wildcats outscore their opponents by an average of 11.6 points and average 10.8 steals a game. While Arizona has lost the turnover battle against opponents this season, it outscores them in points off turnovers.
Then insert McDonald, who’s averaging 19.4 points, and is capable of going off in any game. The junior scored a season-high 30 points at Arizona State back in February and has a career high of 44 points (at Texas on Nov. 17, 2019).
Since transferring to Arizona from Washington, she’s been an integral part of the Wildcats offense.
“When you have an All-American like her, who can create baskets for other people — that’s what makes you a great player, is making baskets for other people [and] she does that — it causes a lot of problems,” Judkins said.
However, the Cougars aren’t without their own players who can cause problems for other teams.
Harding, who put up 28 points to lead BYU to the upset victory over Rutgers, plays with tremendous athleticism and physicality. Sophomore Shaylee Gonzales, an Arizona native, is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.4 points. Then add in sophomore Lauren Gustin, who’s averaging a double-double with seed
.5 points and 12.7 rebounds. Even in games when opponents shut down Gustin offensively, the 6-foot-1 forward is still instrumental off the glass.
The Cougars also get plenty of production from their two other starters: Tegan Graham and Sara Hamson.
Graham, a grad transfer from Colgate, quickly became a team leader, while Hamson’s presence is mostly felt on the defensive end.
With a multitude of players, each with their own skill set, Gustin feels confident the Cougars can continue dancing.
“We’re a great team, so I think we could definitely pull out more W’s,” Gustin said. “That’s our plan.”