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‘A nightmare to guard’: Here’s why Paisley Harding and Shaylee Gonzales are among best guards in the country

Gonzales averages a team-high 18.8 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game, while Harding chips in 16.9 points per game

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BYU guards Paisley Johnson Harding (13) and Shaylee Gonzales (2) celebrate during West Coast Conference tournament.

BYU guards Paisley Johnson Harding (13) and Shaylee Gonzales (2) celebrate during West Coast Conference tournament semifinal action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There’s no doubt that the BYU women’s basketball team boasts one of the best backcourts in the country.

Senior Paisley Harding and sophomore Shaylee Gonzaleshave led the Cougars to a 23-2 record, a No. 19 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25, and a No. 9 ranking in the NCAA’s NET rankings. BYU is projected as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Cougars, who travel to Santa Clara and Pacific this week to finish up the regular season, are on the verge of clinching the West Coast Conference regular-season championship.

Gonzales averages a team-high 18.8 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game. She is shooting 52% from the floor and has recorded a team-high 58 steals.

Harding averages 16.9 points and shoots 47% from the field and she’s had 42 steals.

Coach Jeff Judkins feels blessed to have this pair of dynamic, complete guards. 

“Paisley is so good moving without the ball. Shaylee has the ball more in her hands. But they’re very close to the same. To me, they’re a nightmare to guard because of that,” he said. “Paisley has probably the best pull-up game of anybody that I’ve coached. Shaylee has the best floater. She can float it in there better than I’ve ever seen. It’s automatic.

“Those two have a good middle game. A lot of people have a good jumper or they drive to the basket. When you get that middle game, you’re hard to defend because you can do so many things when you go to the basket,” he continued. “I keep telling them that they’re the best all-around players in the conference. They can defend, they can score, they can pass, they can rebound. They do it all. That’s what makes our team so strong.”

Harding and Gonzales are two of the best in program history. Harding has scored 1,824 career points, No. 5 all-time in program history, while Gonzales is No. 10 on the all-time list with 1,476 career points.

Assistant coach Melanie Day said Harding and Gonzales possess at least a couple of qualities that set them apart. 

“They’re competitors. They have this fierce competitiveness. They want to win. They will do whatever it takes and they’re willing to put in the work,” she said. “They’ve both put in a lot of work outside of practice and outside of the season. In the summers, they’re putting in the work with their own trainers. That’s what separates them. They’re competitors. They want to win. They’re super tough, too.”

In recent weeks, Gonzales and Harding have displayed, once again, that competitiveness and toughness.

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BYU guard Paisley Harding drives during game against Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On Feb. 5 at Gonzaga, Harding absorbed a knee to her face, causing her to get stitches in the first half. At halftime, the Cougars trailed 35-20. Harding returned and in the second half and she helped spearhead an impressive comeback that resulted in a 62-50 victory for BYU. 

Of course, Harding has played with injuries before. 

During the NCAA Tournament last season, the Cougars fell just short of reaching the Sweet 16 and Harding played with a broken hand. BYU still nearly beat Arizona, which ended up losing in the NCAA championship game. 

The Cougars can only wonder how far they would have gone had Harding been completely healthy. 

On Feb. 12, Gonzales poured in a career-high 35 points, and had seven steals, while leading a decisive fourth quarter in BYU’s 84-69 win at Saint Mary’s.

During her career, Gonzales has overcome injuries as well.

In the summer of 2019, fresh off a stellar freshman season, Gonzales suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee, forcing her to miss the entire 2019-2020 campaign. 

BYU’s Shaylee Gonzales drives against Utah’s Kennady “Lightning” McQueen at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4, 2021. McQueen, the former Deseret News’ Ms. Basketball in 2020, leads the Utes into the 2022 Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament on March 2, 2022.

BYU guard Shaylee Gonzales looks to score during game against Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In a way, Judkins said, playing without Gonzales for that season helped Harding improve her game. 

“When Shaylee got hurt, Paisley appreciated Shaylee when she wasn’t there. She got her a lot of easy baskets. That year helped Paisley because it helped her be more aggressive offensively and do more things. It made her a better player because of that,” Judkins said. “The same thing happened with Kim Parker after Lexi Eaton tore her ACL. Kim got better because of that. It’s been so nice to have a kid like Paisley that’s started for three years and now a fourth year. You don’t have to say a lot to her. She goes out and does what she needs to do.”

Certainly, Harding and Gonzales complement each other in ways that make them difficult to defend. 

Gonzales turned in another outstanding season last year, after rehabbing from her knee injury. But she’s been even better this season.

“Last year, she was probably 90%. This year, her knee is feeling better. The big part is mental. She was great last year but she was thinking about things,” Judkins said. “That’s normal. It takes some time to get out of that. This year, she’s playing more like herself. She’s moving better and I don’t think she’s as nervous about things. She’s playing more like herself. She had a great year last year. She’s special.” 

After the Cougars fell to Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzales sat in the locker room, steaming. 

“She was so mad. She wasn’t sad. That hadn’t come yet. She was so mad and she wanted to get back out there,” Day remembered. “She was talking to me about how she wanted to get back out there. She kept saying, ‘We need to go farther next year.’ There wasn’t time to be sad. She wanted to get back out there immediately.”

During his 20-plus years at BYU, Judkins has had the privilege of coaching some excellent guards. 

This season, he has two in that category.

“A coach only gets one or two sometimes in his coaching career,” Judkins said. “I’m really lucky to have a couple of them like that.”