The last images of the BYU women’s basketball team in 2019 were from a second-round NCAA Tournament loss at Stanford. The Cougars were a dynamic group of young players disappointed in the loss but believing the best was yet to come.
As BYU prepares for the 2019-20 season the expectations are high to repeat or exceed last year’s accomplishments: 26 wins, three victories against Gonzaga, a West Coast Conference tournament title and the first NCAA tournament win since 2014.
The Cougars got some bad news this summer when freshman sensation and leading scorer Shaylee Gonzalez (17 points per game) tore her ACL. She’ll miss the entire season while recovering.
“We have a lot back but when you lose a key player like Shaylee it’s not just what she did for us on offense but also on defense she was a big part of our game,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “It’s going to change a lot of things. It’s not just replacing her starting but now you lose one of your best kids off your bench because you’re going to start her and now you move somebody else into another role. I think that the team has had some time to figure things out and this will be an opportunity for other players to step it up and do what they need to do.”
“I see a lot of improvement. These girls weren’t satisfied (with last season) and I wasn’t either. When we got done with the season we talked about it and they worked hard in the offseason. Hopefully you’ll see their hard work pay off.”
BYU lost only one contributor to graduation in Caitlyn Alldredge, so there are plenty of familiar faces on the roster. Senior Brenna Chase Drollinger and juniors Paisley Johnson and Sara Hamson form a strong nucleus for the Cougars to rally around.
Drollinger (12.8 points per game) made a team-high 88 3-pointers, including seven against Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final.
“I feel like I’ve worked a lot on consistency in my game and then also my mid-range game,” said Drollinger, who got married this summer. “I’m excited to see how that comes together. I don’t pull up very much and I’ve been doing that a lot this summer so hopefully I can implement that into my game more.”
The 5-foot-9 Johnson came on strong during the regular season and improved her scoring average from 5.6 points per game as a freshman to 14.5 as a sophomore. She also earned the MVP award at the WCC Tournament.
“I think the jump I made last year makes it evident that I have more room to grow,” Johnson said. “I can try new things and learn new things and put different things into my game that I haven’t had in the past two years for some new spice. It might be fun.
“I don’t think we have become complacent which is super exciting. It just means that we still have this fight and drive to do even better than we did last year and it’s just an exciting feeling.”
Of Johnson, Drollinger said, “I don’t know that she’s missed many shots in practice, so get on her, guys. She’s good.”
Hamson, at 6-7, is a unique defensive presence who averaged 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game last season. She opted not to play volleyball for BYU this year so she has been able to spend the entire summer working on her basketball skills.
“It’s been super nice to be able to just focus on just one sport,” Hamson said. “It’s been good to be around the team and get those relationships better and closer. Also I have had more time to get individual (drills) and get those extra reps. That’s really helped a lot. I feel like I’m going to have a lot less stress this year and I’ll be able to just be a lot more free and play as hard as I can — not that I wasn’t playing as hard as I can last year but you know what I mean — but play loose and go after it.”
Filling Gonzalez’s role at point guard will be junior Maria Albiero, who was fourth on the team in assists while getting 15 minutes per game last season. There is depth in the front court with 6-5 sophomore Malli Valgardson Perri, 6-3 senior Shalae Salmon and 6-2 senior Jasmine Moody pushing for playing time. Sophomore Babalu Ugwu has made great strides this offseason, according to Judkins, and will fill a role as a small forward with strong rebounding skills.
Judkins said he likes the progress of redshirt freshman guard Kaylee Smiler and newcomer Leilani Otuafi, a defensive-minded guard from Nevada.
BYU also signed former Salem Hills standout Lauren Gustin, the Class 4A MVP in the state of Utah as a senior. Gustin, who originally committed to Idaho, played last season at Salt Lake Community College and averaged 19.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. Due to NCAA transfer rules, she will have to sit out the 2019-20 season.
There are two newcomers on the coaching staff as well. Former BYU standout Lee Cummard, who was last on the Cougar men’s staff, has moved over to the women’s team and Judkins also hired former BYU women’s basketball standout Melanie Pearson Day.
“Change is sometimes good,” Judkins said. “It’s nice to have success and people get jobs and people get other opportunities but these two came in with a lot of positive energy. Lee has done a great job and it’s nice to have him. Mel was a great player when I first got here and i her senior year she was a big part of our success so I’m excited.”
BYU opens the 2019-20 season on October 29 with an exhibition game against Westminster College at the Marriott Center.