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WCC Women’s Basketball Preview: Cougars prove worth during preseason run

By Darnell Dickson - | Dec 28, 2021

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

BYU's Shaylee Gonzales drives to the basket in a women's college basketball game against Lipscomb in the Marriott Center on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

West Coast Conference coaches picked the BYU women’s basketball team to win the league’s regular season championship and the Cougars haven’t given them any reason to doubt their choice.

BYU completed a challenging preseason with a 10-1 record, its only loss in overtime at Big 12 power Oklahoma. The Cougars, ranked No. 18 in the latest polls, have five victories over Power 5 schools and won three against Pac-12 competition.

The national pundits have noticed: BYU is listed as a No. 5 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology.

“I’m really excited about where we are,” Cougar coach Jeff Judkins said. “We’ve played a really hard schedule. If you’d have told me we would be 10-1, I would have taken it at the start of the year, Hopefully, we can build from that. We need to get our minds and bodies a bit of rest. They we’re going to get back at and prepare for the conference.”

BYU returned all five starters from the 2020-21 season, which saw them win the WCC regular-season title and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. WCC Co-Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales is averaging 19.1 points per game but teams who focus only on stopping her find out BYU has other weapons. Senior Paisley Harding (15.6 ppg) scored 33 in the Cougars’ big win at Utah. Grad senior Tegan Graham set a school record with 10 3-pointers and scored 30 points against Oklahoma. Sophomore forward Lauren Gustin is averaging 11 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Point guard Maria Albiero runs the show and is second on the team in assists to Graham. At 6-foot-7, Sara Hamson is coming off the bench, has 29 blocks and has improved her scoring game around the rim.

Judkins missed a few games due to COVID-19 but assistant Lee Cummard stepped in and the team didn’t miss a beat.

Judkins began the season with 19 players on his roster but injuries and redshirts have brought that number down to a more manageable 15.

“My dad told me a long time ago you just have to let things work out,” Judkins said. “We’ve got good depth and that’s a nice thing. I have a couple of freshmen (Nana Falatea and Emma Calvert) who I gave the option of redshirting. I told them they would have to come off the bench and wouldn’t get a lot of minutes, but they wanted to play and help the team.”

The Cougars open league play at home against two solid contenders – San Diego and Portland – followed by a difficult road trip to San Francisco.

“They gave us three really tough games right at the first,” Judkins said. “It’s hard to do that right after the Christmas break. I wish we had some easy games to start but all the teams have to go through this. The last few years in the league we’ve played five games in eight days. We always thought that wasn’t fair because if you lose games early it could cost you the title. Hopefully, we’ve had enough time to get ready for everything.

“This first week will be a handful. We’re excited because we’ve already played a difficult schedule. If we come out, execute and do the things we practice, we can beat anyone on any given night.”

West Coast Conference Power Rankings

1. BYU (0-0, 10-1)

NET ranking: 24

Trending: Lauren Gustin is tied for second in the country in average rebounds per game (12.7).

Best win: An 85-80 victory against Utah (No. 22 NET ranking) on Dec 4.

Best player: Shaylee Gonzales 5-10 So. G (19.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.5 apg)

The Word: The Cougars rolled through a challenging preseason schedule and showed why they were picked by WCC coaches to win the league. Plenty of firepower and experience for this team to make an NCAA tournament run.

2. Gonzaga (0-0, 9-3)

NET ranking: 32

Trending: Courtney Vandersloot will become the first women’s player in Gonzaga history to have her jersey displayed in the McCarthey Athletic Center prior to tipoff against San Francisco.

Best win: An 89-71 victory against Utah (No. 22 NET ranking) at the Rainbow Wahine Showcase in Hawaii.

Best player: Kaylynne Truong 5-8 Jr. G (11.9 ppg, 43 assists, 24 3s)

The Word: The Zags returned just two starters but have the talent to challenge BYU at the top of the conference. Gonzaga’s loss to UC Davis was a puzzler, but it had good performance in a close loss to No. 2 Stanford in November.

3. Portland (0-0, 10-2)

NET ranking: 58

Trending: Portland has won four in a row and eight of its past nine games.

Best win: A 70-59 victory against Stephen F. Austin (No. 51 NET ranking) on Dec. 14.

Best player: Alex Fowler 6-2 So. F (16.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 53% FG)

The Word: The Pilots haven’t played the most rigorous preseason schedule (290th by RealTimeRPI) but are off to their best start since the 1997-98 season. Portland’s only losses were to No. 2 Stanford and Oregon.

4. San Diego (0-0, 8-4)

NET ranking: 80

Trending: The Toreros pushed undefeated Nebraska (No. 7 NET ranking) before falling 64-56 on Nov. 27.

Best win: A 52-46 win against Air Force (No. 139 NET Ranking) on Nov. 17.

Best player: Steph Gorman 6-0 Sr. G (11.5 ppg, 25 3s, 43% on 3s)

The Word: All five starters returned for the Toreros this season and the results indicate they are a team to be reckoned with in 2021-22. COVID-19 ruined USD’s chances at the WCC Tournament last season so incentive won’t be a problem for Cindy Fisher’s crew.

5. Santa Clara (0-0, 6-4)

NET ranking: 146

Trending: The Broncos have lost three of their past four games.

Best win: A 73-60 victory against Nevada (No. 202 NET ranking) on No. 14

Best player: Lindsey VanAllen 5-9 Sr. G (13.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg)

The Word: After starting the season with wins against Cal Poly, Nevada and San Jose State, the Broncos have only beaten Cal Bakersfield, UC Merced and Holy Names.

6. Saint Mary’s (0-0, 6-5)

NET ranking: 166

Trending: The Gaels are 4-5 in their past nine games.

Best win: A 52-50 victory against UC Davis (No. 129 NET ranking) on Nov. 13.

Best player: Taycee Wedin 5-9 Sr. G (15.5 ppg, 37 3-pointers)

The Word: Wedin is a threat every time she gets the ball on the offensive end but as a team, the Gaels are shooting just 39% from the field (last in the WCC) and 29% from the 3-point line (ninth).

7. San Francisco (0-0, 6-6)

NET ranking: 140

Trending: The Dons are 2-5 in their past seven games.

Best win: A 78-63 upset at USC (No. 70 NET ranking) on Dec. 5.

Best player: Ioanna Krimili 5-10 So. G (17.4 ppg, 33 3-pointers)

The Word: When Krimili is on, USF is dangerous. She scored 29 in the upset of USC. But she needs some help to push the Dons into the top five in the WCC.

8. Pepperdine (0-0, 4-5)

NET ranking: 189

Trending: The Waves are 2-3 in their past five games.

Best win: A 66-50 victory against UAB (No. 149 NET ranking) on Nov. 24.

Best player: Ally Steadman 5-9 Fr. G (11.4 ppg)

The Word: Pepperdine needs to find more offense to held Steadman. The Waves are averaging just 62.7 points per game, ninth out of 10 teams in the WCC.

9. Loyola Marymount (0-0, 5-5)

NET ranking: 218

Trending: The Lions have won three games in a row (Hawaii-Pacific, Texas State, Cal State-Fullerton).

Best win: A 51-44 victory against UC San Diego (No. 227 NET ranking) at the Thanksgiving Classic on Nov. 27.

Best player: Ariel Johnson 5-9 Sr. G (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg)

The Word: LMU is another offensively challenged team, averaging just 62.2 points per game (last in the WCC).

10. Pacific (0-0, 3-8)

NET ranking: 224

Trending:

Best win: A 75-62 victory against Weber State (No. 160 NET ranking) on Dec. 21.

Best player: Anaya James 5-9 Fr. G (15.5 ppg, 4.3 apg)

The Word: The loss of Valerie Higgins (16.5 ppg) Brooklyn McDavid (14.5 ppg) to graduation has been very difficult for Pacific to overcome. James has been outstanding as a freshman but the Tigers are giving up 72.3 points per game, last in the WCC.

WCC Standings

BYU 0-0, 10-1

Portland 0-0, 10-2

Gonzaga 0-0, 9-3

San Diego 0-0, 8-4

Santa Clara 0-0, 6-4

Saint Mary’s 0-0, 6-5

San Francisco 0-0, 6-6

Loyola Marymoun 0-0, 5-5

Pepperdine 0-0, 4-5

Pacific 0-0, 3-8

WCC schedule

Thursday, Dec. 30

Pacific at Pepperdine, 3 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

Portland at Loyola Marymount, 6 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

San Diego at BYU, 7 p.m. MT (BYUtv)

San Francisco at Gonzaga, 7 p.m. MT (SWX)

Saint Mary’s at Santa Clara, 7 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

Saturday, Jan. 1

Gonzaga at Loyola Marymount, 1 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

Portland at BYU, 2 p.m. MT (BYUtv)

San Diego at Pacific, 3 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

Santa Clara at San Francisco, 3 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

Saint Mary’s at Pepperdine, 3 p.m. MT (WCC Network)

BYU’s Paisley Harding goes up for a shot against Washington State during a women’s college basketball game at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

BYU senior center Sara Hamson blocks a shot during the Cougar win over Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Courtesy BYU Photo)

BYU senior forward Tegan Graham looks to pass the ball during the Cougar win over Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Courtesy BYU Photo)

BYU players cheer after a good play during the Cougar win over Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (Courtesy BYU Photo)

University Photographer

BYU sophomore forward Lauren Gustin looks to pass during the exhibition game against Westminster at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Courtesy BYU Photo)

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