Why fearlessness may be the key for BYU women’s basketball this season

The Cougars were picked to finish third in their final West Coast Conference season.

Provo • BYU women’s basketball coach Amber Whiting wears a necklace every day that says “faith over fear.” She has a sign at home and in her office that says the same thing. Fearlessness is what she lives by.

And that’s exactly what the Cougars will live by this season, too, especially because they know they have a potentially scary mountain to climb.

Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham, Maria Albiero and Sara Hamson graduated. Shaylee Gonzales transferred. Those players represented more than 80% of the team’s offensive production.

To further complicate matters, coach Jeff Judkins retired and Whiting, who has never coached a college game, replaced him.

So the Cougars have basically a brand new team and coaching staff. Preseason predictions reflect that, as they’ve been projected to finish third in the West Coast Conference.

But BYU is tackling all of that with this season’s team motto: “Fearless.”

“We expect a lot of people to think that we might not have as good as a season as we had last year,” guard Kaylee Smiler said. “So our theme kind of helps us remember that we’re not afraid and we’re not going to back down this year just because we’re versing a lot of big teams. We’re ready for the fight.”

The Cougars went undefeated at home last year and finished with a 26-4 record overall (15-1 WCC). They finished the year ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press women’s basketball poll, and reached as high as No. 15, a program record.

BYU was seeded No. 6 in the NCAA Tournament, although the Cougars lost in the first round to Villanova.

With so much production and experience gone from the program, the Cougars will need to look elsewhere for leadership. The team already has a group of young players that made waves last season, but Smiler and Lauren Gustin are now the two longest-tenured on the team who also got significant playing time.

Gustin said that in the last couple of years, she hasn’t really pushed herself to be much of a leader due to the players that already had that responsibility. But this season, she likes the added pressure of an increased leadership role.

At many points last season, Judkins said he needed to see more from Smiler. This year, with an increased role, it seems she will take that advice to heart.

“I need to step up. That was what everyone would normally tell me,” Smiler said. “So this season and summer, I’ve been trying to step out of my comfort zone and get comfortable with being uncomfortable because I know that my team needs me and that’s what I should be doing.”

Along with Gustin and Smiler, point guard Nani Falatea is a team captain. She played 28 games last season and shot 50% from the 3-point line.

This season might be uncomfortable at times for BYU, which was not mentioned in ESPN’s NCAA Tournament Bracketology earlier this month. But the team wants to push through low expectations with its motto, and that extends to the team’s main players.

“I think that has to be our key for leaders this year,” Gustin said.