BYU’s Sara Hamson lost her starting spot and discovered something bigger

The 6-foot-7 senior center has started just one game this season after starting every single one in the previous two seasons

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars center Sara Hamson (22) blocks a shot by Utah Utes center Megan Huff (5) as BYU hosts Utah, NCAA women's basketball in Provo, Saturday December 9, 2017.

Sara Hamson sat in front her locker moments after the BYU women’s basketball team mounted a comeback road win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. She had just played a season-high 28 minutes and finished her best and arguably most important performance of the year, scoring six points and blocking five shots while changing the complexion of the game.

Coach Jeff Judkins handed out superlatives to all the players who helped the Cougars win that night. When he got to Hamson, her teammates roared in celebration as they gathered around her. She received hugs from fellow seniors Maria Albiero and Paisley Harding.

The moment moved Hamson to tears.

“I just felt so loved and valued by the team in that moment,” Hamson said. “Sometimes when your role on the team changes, you have a harder time feeling as valued, even though each role is very important.”

Going into the 2021-22 campaign, the 6-foot-7 center from Lindon, Utah, had started every game the previous two seasons. She was a two-time winner of the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year award. She had been named to the 20-player watch list for the Lisa Leslie Award in two consecutive preseasons.

But Hamson’s fifth and final season has been quite different from the others. When coach Jeff Judkins announced the starters before the first game, she wasn’t among them. It was then that she realized her role had been reduced to that of a bench player.

“I think it was very, very disappointing and heartbreaking,” Hamson’s mother, Teresa, said, “and almost a situation where you have to mourn the situation.”

Losing her starting spot forced Hamson to look inward. To evaluate where her confidence comes from. To tackle aspects of her self-worth.

“It’s definitely been a growing experience for me,” Hamson said.

Making a sacrifice

As a freshman, Hamson played 27.2 minutes per game. She averaged at least 20 minutes until last season, when her time on the court was reduced to just 16.4 minutes despite still being a starter.

Heading into Selection Sunday, Hamson is averaging 14.6 minutes per game — a career-low. She did not get any consideration this season for the WCC’s top award for defenders. Fewer starts and reduced minutes could be impacting her future career aspirations, she said.

“I’m unlikely to get awards, which help me get better known, and help me get seen, and help the WNBA maybe see me more and potentially want to draft me,” Hamson said. “But because I’m coming off the bench and getting low minutes, that is not happening.”

Playing an extra year at BYU might also impact Hamson’s life after basketball. Her major at school was bioinformatics, and she hopes to work as a software engineer. But with the rapidly changing nature of technology, she can’t afford to wait too long to start that career.

“The more time I spend away from that, the further behind I get in my field,” Hamson said.

As Hamson has navigated her new role, the Cougars as a whole have soared. They won the WCC regular-season championship behind a 25-2 record and a perfect 14-0 record at home. They were one game away from a conference tournament championship, which they lost to Gonzaga.

But when Hamson has one of her patented games where she patrols the middle on defense and swats away any shot that comes in her path, the team makes sure to acknowledge it.

“[The] team knows how important she is,” Judkins said. “The team knows the effort she’s made. The team knows the sacrifices that she’s made on the team. So when she has success, they’re happy for her because they know she’s given some things up.”

Senior guard Paisley Harding said she has never seen Hamson complain about minutes or her bench role. Instead, she’s seen a renewed life in her fellow senior.

“I was very proud of her with how she handled it because I believe she did something where she has been performing and playing and her confidence is like completely different than the Sara I’d ever known before,” Harding said. “She handled it like a champ.”

Where will BYU land on the NCAA Tournament bracket?

The BYU women’s basketball team returned to Provo with a bad taste in its players’ mouths. They badly wanted to win the West Coast Conference Tournament championship, and do so against the Gonzaga Bulldogs team that ripped it from their arms a year ago.

But that didn’t happen. The Bulldogs earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament instead, and now the Cougars have to sit and wait like all the other teams clinging to hope that they’ve done enough throughout the season to earn an at-large bid from the selection committee.

As of Wednesday, ESPN’s latest projections place BYU as the No. 5 seed in the Wichita region of the 68-team bracket. The Cougars are likely to face either the Dayton Flyers or the Villanova Wildcats, both of whom are projected for a play-in game.

Selection Sunday will unveil the full women’s bracket at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

‘I don’t have to be perfect’

Hamson’s family is filled with elite basketball players. Her mother holds the all-time record in blocks at BYU with 494. Her older sister, Jennifer, played in the WNBA and, before, that, also at BYU. Her father, David, played for the Cougars men’s team.

Whether it was at Pleasant Grove High School or at BYU playing both basketball and volleyball, Hamson has proved on several occasions how talented she is. But as a person who admitted her tendency to be very hard on herself, confidence hasn’t always come easily to her.

That was especially true when she lost her starting spot.

“I don’t get the validation of being a starter and of playing a lot of minutes,” Hamson said. “That in itself is a confidence builder because it shows how much the coach trusts you and believes in you.”

Without validation coming from elsewhere, Hamson worked to find it within herself. In the past, she would internalize minor mistakes such as missing a layup or defensive assignment as meaning she wasn’t talented. Or that the only value she brought to the team was merely being “just a tall basketball player.”

“That’s something I’ve struggled overcoming with myself and a belief that some people have put on me and that I used to accept for a little while,” Hamson said about her height.

But as the season went on, and she wasn’t getting as many minutes as years past, she actually got better as a player — not worse. She became more aggressive on offense. She started not letting mistakes define who she is. She discovered she’s more than just her height, that she actually is a good basketball player.

In the process, she learned to be kinder to herself.

“I think that’s a lot more of a stable form of confidence than I’ve had in the past,” Hamson said.

Hamson’s mom has noticed how much confidence she’s gained through enduring a difficult situation in her senior year.

“It’s not good that it was a hard thing, but I think that she’s learned a lot from it,” Teresa Hamson said. “I think that it has helped her as an individual and it’ll help her to deal with future challenges in life.

“I think that she has learned how important relationships are. She’s learned how to push through when people aren’t nice to her. She’s learned to be a little tougher and learned how to be confident in herself and her abilities.”

Hamson said she’s struggled with perfectionism her entire life, and still does somewhat. But perhaps the biggest lesson she’s learned this season is to give herself space to be human.

“I don’t have to be perfect to still be really amazing and to be valuable and to achieve goals and to become who I want to be,” Hamson said.

No regrets

Hamson is just 24 blocks away from claiming the BYU all-time record away from her mother. She knows there may be too many factors outside her control that wouldn’t allow her to reach it.

“It’s close, but yet so far,” Hamson said.

One would think there’s a part of Teresa Hamson that doesn’t want her record touched. But she wants that accolade for her daughter considering what she’s been through.

“Probably as a mother right now, it’s very, very important that she breaks this record because all that she had to sacrifice this year to be there,” Teresa Hamson said. “And not only sacrificing for the team but sacrificing her future career.”

Hamson might get that chance if the Cougars make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Judkins said recently that her role is likely to increase as they face teams with taller players — similar to how she was used against Gonzaga when she played 28 minutes.

“We’re definitely going to need her in the NCAA Tournament,” Judkins said. “As you get further in the NCAA tournament, it’s the bigs that are the better players.”

Teresa Hamson said she felt proud of how her daughter has handled this season. If she were in her situation, she said, she would’ve found somewhere else to play.

But that thought never crossed Hamson’s mind. She loves her teammates too much.

“I try to make decisions based off of what the best version of me would do and who I want to be and what’s right, and going to a different team just is not right to me,” Hamson said. “It’d be a disservice to the rest of the girls, and I would not want to do anything that would negatively affect the rest of the team.”

That love and respect poured out that night in early February after beating Gonzaga. Sophomore guard Shaylee Gonzales said the emotion was so palpable that “a couple of us almost started crying as well.”

And despite her senior year not going how she planned, Hamson is not only enjoying all the team’s on-court success, but also the growth she’s seen in herself as a player and person.

“I don’t have any regrets about coming back,” Hamson said.