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‘We will surprise a lot of people’: BYU ‘motivated’ after being picked third in preseason poll

First-year coach Amber Whiting replaces Jeff Judkins, who was at helm of women’s team for 21 seasons

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BYU forward Lauren Gustin grabs the ball during a game against Gonzaga at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on March 8, 2022.

BYU forward Lauren Gustin grabs during game against Gonzaga in the 2022 WCC Women’s Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Gustin is back for more for BYU in 2022-23.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The BYU women’s basketball program is going through two major transitions.

First, the Cougars are opening a new era under first-year coach Amber Whiting, who replaced the legendary Jeff Judkins, who was at the helm of the program for 21 years.

Last season, BYU dominated the West Coast Conference, winning the regular-season championship. 

Meanwhile, this marks the final season for the Cougars in the WCC before BYU jumps into the Big 12.

Amid those changes, on Wednesday, the WCC coaches picked BYU to finish third behind Gonzaga and Portland during media day at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

“I think it definitely gives us some motivation heading into this year,” Whiting said. “I think we will surprise a lot of people with the team we have and I am looking forward to getting started.”

Forward Lauren Gustin, who was the only BYU player named to the preseason All-WCC team, isn’t concerned about the outside expectations. 

“With the rankings coming out … this is motivating. We’re OK with it. We have our own goals that we’ve set as a team and individually,” she said. “We definitely hold ourselves to a high standard. We know our goals and we know what we’re fighting for. It gives us an extra motivation every day.”

The Cougars are replacing four of five of their starters from last year, including star guards Shaylee Gonzales, who transferred to Texas, and Paisley Harding, who graduated. 

But Gustin, a two-time All-WCC first team selection, returns. She averaged 10.7 points and 11.5 rebounds last year. She recorded 14 double-doubles and earned AP All-America honorable mention honors in 2020-21.

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First-year BYU women’s basketball coach Amber Whiting.

BYU Photo

Other key returning players include Nani Falatea, who hit 21 of 41 3-pointers last year, and Kaylee Smiler, who has played 63 games in her career. Emma Calvert, the 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year, is also back. 

“We lost a lot of good players — a lot of seniors, a lot of leaders. But it provides opportunities for others to step up. … It’s going to be different but it’s going to be an exciting year for us,” Gustin said. “Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of great players. But we have a lot of great girls coming back. We feel like we all need to step up and take on a big role, all of us. All of us have to do more on the offensive and defensive end. We all need to step up.”

During the summer, Whiting and the coaching staff have been working on becoming familiar with each other. 

“Getting to know the coaches has been a lot of fun,” Falatea said. “They’re all incredible people and the more we get to know them we see how much they care about us and it’s pushed us even further.”

In 2021-22, BYU finished with a 15-1 record in WCC play and a 26-4 mark overall after falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

But Whiting isn’t focusing on the final result. She wants to see incremental progress from her players. 

“I don’t want them to look to, ‘We have to be the WCC champions next year or it’s a failure.’ I want them to look at who do we play first? You have to take all the little steps to get there.

“In the meantime, from now until our first game, if we have 30 days left, 1%,” she said. “Can we get better 1% every day? So by the time we get to our first game we’re 30% better. … I like to break it down little by little — little goals so they can get their big ones.”

The Cougars open the season with an exhibition game against Westminster on Oct. 27. They tip off the regular season on Nov. 8 at Colorado State.