Provo • Emotions almost overcame Paisley Harding before stepping onto the Marriott Center court for what may be the last time. The senior guard on the BYU women’s basketball team was, just like the entire squad, trying to focus on beating Gonzaga while also knowing five seniors would be honored after the game.
“I had to go meditate before the game and just breathe and settle my stomach, settle my nerves and just go out and remember I have a job to do, and that’s play basketball as a well as I can,” Harding said while wearing several necklaces filled with candy and flower crown made by freshman Nani Falatea’s mother.
Not only did the No. 20 Cougars get the job done by way of a 63-39 blowout win over the Bulldogs. They also took control of the top spot of the West Coast Conference with just two games left in the regular season — Thursday at Santa Clara and next Saturday at Pacific. Both those games, at least on paper, should be wins despite them being on the road.
During the game, from the sidelines, the Cougars players, coaches and managers hung on every shot. On every call from the referee. From the stands, the record crowd of 6,289 was in emotional lock step with them.
The scene underscored the importance of Saturday afternoon’s game. The No. 20 Cougars, the best team in the West Coast Conference, against Gonzaga, the second best team in the conference.
The win gave BYU a 13-1 conference record. Gonzaga fell to 12-2, but both teams will likely finish in the first and second spots, respectively, in the WCC. That means they will get a double-bye in the conference tournament, which starts March 3 in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said the 2021-22 iteration of the BYU women is “probably the best team that we’ve had to face,” and she remembers how good some past versions of the Cougars have been.
Fortier said she wants to face the Cougars in the WCC Tournament and see if her Bulldogs can play better than they did in their two regular-season matchups.
“I thought that both games there were stretches — probably more stretches in the first game than this game — where we were pretty good,” Fortier said. “We’d like to make some adjustments and see what that looks like if that’s how it turns out.”
Although the two teams played evenly for the first quarter, the Cougars once again proved why they are the elite of the elite in the conference. Their defense carried the day, allowing Gonzaga just 13 points in the second and third quarters combined. Gonzaga’s 39 points was its lowest output of the season.
Sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales led the Cougars with 21 points, while Harding added 16 points and seven assists.
Harding was not shy about how she wants the WCC Tournament to play out.
“We played against them in the championship last year and lost — and we should’ve won,” Harding said. “We did not play how we’re supposed to play. So I want my revenge there. We better be playing in the championship, and I want to show them what it’s like to play against me for one more time.”