Provo • Paisley Harding hit the wooden floor of the Marriott Center, diving to fight for possession of the ball. She wrestled it away from her defender, and got to her feet first.
Rather than just walking away, Harding embodied former Philadelphia 76ers player Allen Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals by stepping over her defender, who briefly played the part of former Los Angeles Lakers player Tyronn Lue. The rest of the BYU women’s basketball cheered Harding and playfully jeered her defender.
But Harding’s defender wasn’t one of her teammates. It was a man named Mike Moser, one of the team’s graduate assistants who, along with a few other men, is tasked with practicing against the No. 20 Cougars to prepare them for every opponent.
Coach Jeff Judkins has been using male practice players on his scout teams for more than 20 years. When he first got the job at BYU, he had heard that legendary women’s coach Pat Summitt used men in her practices. Judkins and his players say it has been a huge advantage for the team as it tries to stay sharp throughout a long season.
“On the basketball side of things, they push us by just being really good athletes,” Harding said recently. “Whether they’re pushing us around, blocking us on defense, whatever it is, they’re just pushing us. It’s such an asset to have them come to practice every single day and play against us.”
The dynamic on the practice court between the men and women is equal parts functional and joyous. It’s not just about making sure the Cougars know what plays an upcoming opposing team will run, or what tendencies an opposing player will show.
It’s also about bragging rights.
The male practice players have all played at least some experience playing basketball, mostly at the high school level. But each of them came into their current roles a few years ago with different expectations of what it would be like to play against women.
Moser thought initially that he’d be working with the reserves, not the starters. Benjamin Burgoyne admitted he was “kind of arrogant” when he started the job a few years ago. Kyle Starr had no expectations whatsoever.
And each of them has been surprised, humbled and even embarrassed by how skilled the Cougars are and their level of competitiveness.
Burgoyne played at Pasadena High School in California and had a few offers to walk on at some universities, including Utah State, before he served his mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and later broke his elbow. He said he gets schooled regularly by who he guards.
“They embarrass me every day, to be honest,” Burgoyne said. “They make me look weak on screens. Sometimes they even make me look slow. They make step-back jumpers on me.”
Starr played at Mead High School in Spokane, Washington, where former two-time NBA champion Adam Morrisson played and coached. His first impression of playing against the women was he was blown away at how fundamentally sound they played.
“It just shocked me,” Starr said. “They took it to us and I had never really had it taken it to me like that by a girl.”
Everyone seems to have a story of getting swatted by senior center Sara Hamson, who stands at 6-foot-7 and has amassed 460 blocks in her career at BYU.
“I had never been blocked by a girl in my life, and I still remember one of the first times I went up against Sarah Hamson,” Starr said. “And, it’s a long arm.”
Moser, who played one year of high school basketball his freshman year, said he “can’t even count” how many times Hamson has blocked one of his shots. He recalled cutting baseline on a play and seemingly having a wide-open layup before Hamson surprised him.
“She blocked it so far, it went into the stands,” Moser said.
Hamson, who has eyes on beating her mother Tresa Spaulding Hamson’s all-time record of 494 career blocks, said blocking shots is one of her favorite aspects of basketball. But it hits a little different when she blocks one of the men.
“It’s especially validating because they’re so athletic and they can consistently shoot over me sometimes — they’ve learned,” Hamson said. “So when I do get them, it’s nice to get them.”
The Cougars make a point to let the men know when they’ve been bested, whether it’s chanting “airball” when one of them doesn’t hit the rim on a shot, or loudly reacting when Hamson blocks one of their shots or one of the women makes a shot despite their defense. When Burgoyne gets scored on, players refer to him as “Little Man.”
“Whenever anything like that happens, we throw it in their face,” Harding said. “We’re screaming at them, we’re talking crap, like everything. We really throw it back on them.”
The Cougars are already a highly competitive bunch, but it reaches an entirely different level when the men take the floor. Burgoyne said they take their already high-level play up even higher and start “pulling out all the tricks.”
Playing against the women regularly for the past few years has even given them a newfound perspective and respect for women’s basketball as a whole.
“These girls are more skilled than almost any guys I’ve ever met,” Starr said.