The BYU bench celebrates during a game at the Marriott Center. (Matthew Norton/BYU Photo)

‘This team competes’ — No. 18 BYU women’s hoops charges into WCC play

Jeff Judkins has been given an incredible gift.

With the NCAA granting athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic, BYU’s four impactful seniors Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham, Maria Albiero and Sara Hamson were all able to return for the Cougars this season. In a sport where roster turnover can make or break a program, Judkins could bring back his entire roster that was fresh off a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament.

“I was shocked they all came back,” Judkins said of his fifth-year seniors. “For all four of them to come back was so great for this team. The upperclassmen have shown a lot of leadership and have done a great job of setting the tone for what’s expected at BYU.”

The chance to run it back with last year’s roster made the choice to return “a no brainer” for BYU’s seniors, who were hungry for one last dance in Provo to finish what they started and make history.

“It was like, ‘why would I not want to do this for another year?'” Graham said. “It wasn’t even a decision for most of us. For the most part it was us asking ‘why wouldn’t we want to come back to do this again and go even further?'”

With the quartet of super seniors, WCC Co-Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales and All-American honorable mention Lauren Gustin, Judkins has no shortage of talent in his arsenal. In fact, it might be the best team Judkins has ever had.

“This is probably the most depth I’ve ever had,” Judkins said.“If we stay healthy, we have a really good shot at winning this conference.”

Voted as the preseason favorite to win the WCC, it’s safe to say that the Cougars have lived up to their lofty expectations thus far. BYU enters conference play Thursday night against San Francisco after a sizzling 10-1 start and ranked No. 18 in the nation, its highest such position in 15 years.

BYU has earned five wins over Power-5 opponents, scored 80 or more points seven times and even finished first in November’s St. Pete’s Showcase invitational, upsetting ranked foes Florida State and West Virginia in consecutive days to capture the tournament crown.

“Coming into Florida we had a lot of confidence as a team, so none of us were really surprised by our performance,” Graham said. “There hasn’t been a single game this season that we haven’t expected to win. We play a style of basketball that can match a lot of teams, and that gives us a lot of confidence, and our experience with veterans on the team just adds to that.”

The Cougars erupted for 101 points against Utah State, their first 100-point outburst since 2001. They’ve handily defeated Mountain West favorites Fresno State by 16 points and Pac-12 leaders Washington State by 18. Against Utah, in a game where they were scarily shorthanded due to positive COVID cases, the Cougars earned their first win over the Utes since 2017 with just seven players seeing the floor.

“I don’t think we’ve shocked ourselves. We know how special this team is and we want to get everything out of this season that we possibly can,” Graham said. “We want the pressure. We greet it with open arms because that’s the team we wanna be.”

The Cougars average 77.8 points per game, with four of their starters posting over 11 points each contest. Masters of the motion offense, BYU dishes out 19.3 assists per game, good for seventh in the country. With so much ball movement and reliance on reads within a motion system, the collective experience among veterans on the team having played together for so long has proven critical to their offensive success.

“Running motion is really where our experience playing together comes in and helps us,” Graham said. “We know where each of us are gonna be, and we know how to find each other.”

“This is the best team I’ve had run motion in a long time, and it’s because they’ve all been here together, and that helps our younger players learn as well,” Judkins said.“This is one of the best passing teams I’ve had. Playing together these past few years has really helped to know everyone’s tendencies and keep the rhythm.”

The Cougars have made 46.5% of their shots from the field this season, which would rank as the third-highest mark in program history, and while not relying too heavily on 3-pointers in their scheme, they still make a solid 36% of their shots from deep. The scoring attack has been spread efficiently with the ‘Killer G’s’ of Gonzales (19.3 PPG), Graham (11.9 PPG) and Gustin (11.0 PPG) leading the consistent charge and Harding (15.6 PPG) adding further to the punch.

Gustin’s 12.7 rebounds per game rank second in the nation, while Graham’s 10 made three-pointers in BYU’s lone loss against Oklahoma set a new program record and tied the all-time mark for both basketball programs at BYU. How impressive is 10 made threes? Not even Jimmer Fredette sank 10 shots from downtown as a Cougar.

“It’s a tough job guarding us offensively because we have so many weapons. We have a very balanced offensive team,” Graham said.

Conversely, BYU’s quick-handed starters have combined for 7.6 steals each game, with Gustin crashing the boards hard and Hamson coming off the bench to swat 2.6 blocks each contest.

The Cougars haven’t played since Dec. 21, with their first two originally scheduled conference matchups postponed due to COVID cases around the league. As the only WCC team currently ranked and already being the preseason favorite, BYU has become the team to beat in the conference, but the target on their back has really just become a chip on their shoulder.

“We want to prove that we can meet those expectations, and that gives us a chip on our shoulder or underdog mindset,” Graham said. “Other teams are going to be ready for us, we’re not going to sneak up on anybody. People view us as a big game.”

“In conference play, you know every team and they know you,” Judkins added. “We’re gonna get the best from everybody we play, which is good because it gets us better as well.”

The Cougars open their conference slate at San Francisco on Thursday night before heading back to Provo to play Pacific this Saturday at 2 p.m. With their time remaining together as a group growing thinner each day, the urgency to compete has intensified for Judkins’ squad, who now look to bring home their first conference championship since 2019 and win multiple NCAA tournament games for the first time since 2013.

“Every single time we play another team, we go out and compete,” Graham said. “I feel like that’s sometimes overlooked in competitive sports since it should be such a given, but we take pride in winning and losing as a team. A lot of our pride comes from winning for each other.”

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