As the women’s Final Four begins, BYU’s talented underclassmen have big dreams for the future

The team’s freshmen class, plus veterans Shaylee Gonzales and Lauren Gustin, all know they will have to step up next season.

Gonzaga's Kayleigh Truong (11) drives around BYU's Shaylee Gonzales (2) during the first half of an NCAA women's championship college basketball game at the West Coast Conference tournament Tuesday, March 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Because of how dominant the BYU women’s basketball team played for most of the 2021-22 regular season, the underclassmen got plenty of opportunities for playing time. Players like Nani Falatea, Emma Calvert, Rose Bubakar and others developed more than typical freshmen, giving the Cougars a glimpse of their future once their highly productive seniors graduated.

The NCAA Women’s Final Four kicks off Friday. BYU won’t be part of it after its disappointing loss to Villanova in the first round. But as the present for the Cougars becomes the past, what’s to come is waiting in the wings, ready to make its mark.

“I know us younger kids have talked about it,” Falatea said. “We want to be able to do what they did. How they made this program special, we want to be able to keep that going.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Cougars guard Nani Falatea (3) shares a laugh with Benjamin Burgoyne, during the BYU women's basketball practice at the Marriott Center, on Monday, January 31, 2022.

Of the five freshmen that recorded minutes this season, Falatea came away with the most. She played in 28 of 30 possible games, and averaged 3.2 points, 1.3 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 10.8 minutes. She shot an even 50% from the 3-point line.

Calvert ended the season with the second-most minutes among the freshmen, averaging 9.6 in 23 games. She also averaged 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game while blocking 17 shots, the third most on the team behind Sara Hamson (74) and Tegan Graham (20).

In all, the five freshmen played a total of 924 minutes. For comparison, sophomore Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Harding tallied 947 and 918, respectively.

Those minutes, though, will all but certainly increase next season. Coach Jeff Judkins, who says he plans to return next season, has already contemplated starting Calvert and making Falatea the point guard.

“It’s going to be huge for our younger girls to step up and to be able to fill someone’s role and to take that role,” Gonzales said. “I know that we’re more than capable of still being able to play teams and to keep up with teams and to win our conference.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Cougars forward Emma Calvert (25) and Pepperdine Waves guard Jayla Ruffus-Milner (14), go after a loose ball, in women's basketball action between the BYU Cougars and the Pepperdine Waves, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

But it won’t only be incumbent on BYU’s rising sophomores to embrace larger roles and higher expectations. Gonzales and Lauren Gustin expect to carry larger loads as well. Judkins said Gonzales, the reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year, needs to improve her 3-point shooting. Gustin needs to continue developing her range, he said.

Gonzales averaged a team-high 18.1 points, while Gustin pulled down a team-high 11.6 rebounds per game. But what might prove most important is their development as leaders.

“I think with leading by example, no question they’re already there. They work so hard. Unquestionably hard workers,” Hamson said of Gonzales and Gustin. “I think both of them are naturally a little bit more reserved and quiet, and they’re going to have to learn to speak up and step in and get uncomfortable and correct people.”

Gonzales and Gustin won’t be the only veterans on next year’s Cougars. Kaylee Smiler, who averaged 12.2 minutes off the bench, is the same age and year as them. Judkins said she’ll need to become more offensive-minded, and Hamson mentioned her as possibly becoming the type of vocal leader that Harding and Graham were.

(Photo courtesy of Madeline Mortensen | BYU Athletics) BYU forward Lauren Gustin put up her eighth double-double against Pepperdine on Feb. 4, scoring 27 points and bring down 20 rebounds.

Some things, however, won’t change.

“Everybody changes a little bit and then the personality of the team and the continuity of the team changes,” Judkins said. “But one thing sticks the same, and that is BYU plays a certain way and we teach things a certain way and we expect them to do that.”

The team all season constantly touted the talent level of the freshmen. Harding called them “the best freshman class I’ve ever seen come through BYU since I’ve been here.”

“They’re all so talented,” Hamson said. “And if they can figure out how to play well together consistently, I think they’re going to do some awesome things and really help with the transition to the Big 12.”

And with the return of Judkins, the continued development of Gonzales and Gustin, and the culture the Cougars have built, some are buzzing about the team’s potential next season and beyond.

“I think the future of the program is in good hands,” Graham said.