They will be the first to admit that their nonconference schedule to date hasn’t been the most difficult in program history, but the BYU women’s basketball team is happy with its 8-2 start, given the adversity that has already hit the squad a little more than a month into the 2023-24 season.

Second-year coach Amber Whiting’s team plays host to Idaho State on Saturday at the Marriott Center (2 p.m. MST), then will compete in the Lady Bear Classic next week before taking a break for the holidays. After playing at Missouri State on Wednesday and vs. Nevada in Springfield, Missouri, on Thursday, the Cougars will begin preparing for their first season in the Big 12.

“I mean, losing Nani (Falatea) is a huge hit for us. I am not going to sugarcoat that. It is big for us. But, it was a hard week last week, and to be able to get two wins coming out of that, I feel like that showed a lot of resilience on their part and a lot of professionalism.” — BYU women’s coach Amber Whiting

Having been picked to finish 11th in the 14-team league, the Cougars open Big 12 play on Dec. 30 at TCU. That’s when the schedule really gets hard, notwithstanding the two losses they have suffered so far at No. 11 Utah and at Wyoming (4-4), which is always a tough place to play.

Bottom line, Whiting said in a news conference Tuesday, is that the Cougars still have a long way to go.

“It is not like, ‘Oh, we are there.’ I told the girls we can’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Whiting said. “Like, you can’t let your highs get too high, your lows get too low. We still got three games before the break and before we hit conference. The Big 12 is going to be a gauntlet. That’s what we have been working towards, and that’s what we want.”

With a roster that has seven new players and a staff that includes two new coaches, what the Cougars didn’t want was injuries or adversity, but that’s what they’ve been handed before the calendar has even turned to 2024.

Third-year point guard Nani Falatea, who started in all 33 games last year for the 16-17 Cougars and averaged 15.3 points per game, left the program after the 87-68 loss to Utah after going 1 of 9 from the field and scoring five points in 22 minutes.

Although she was struggling with an undisclosed injury that allowed her to play in only three games (LMU, Wyoming and Utah), Falatea’s absence remains shrouded in mystery.

Asked for more information on Falatea’s abrupt departure and whether the former East and Herriman High star will enter the transfer portal, retire from basketball or return to BYU down the road, Whiting declined to provide more details.

“I don’t really want to talk about that right now,” she said. “Sorry.”

Falatea is engaged to BYU football star Kingsley Suamataia, the offensive lineman who announced Wednesday that he will forego his remaining two seasons of eligibility and enter April’s NFL draft.

“I mean, losing Nani is a huge hit for us. I am not going to sugarcoat that. It is big for us. But, it was a hard week last week, and to be able to get two wins coming out of that, I feel like that showed a lot of resilience on their part and a lot of professionalism,” Whiting said. “We were all sad. But I mean, we could have fell apart, but they came together and they laced them up and they got after it. I feel like basketball has a healing nature to it, and that is what I saw working last week.

“Does that mean we are over the hump? No. We still see things in practice that we miss her on. … But hopefully the girls rally around each other and come together,” Whiting continued.

So far, they have.

They held off Mountain West schools Utah State (72-66) and Boise State (65-50) last week and have been getting back to the kind of defense that got them off to a 6-0 start, Whiting said.

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Senior forward Lauren Gustin, on the top-20 watch list for the 2024 Katrina McClain Award, has led the way, as expected, and is averaging 16.8 points and 15.5 rebounds, both team-highs.

A pair of freshmen guards, Lone Peak product Kailey Woolston and Amari Whiting, the coach’s daughter, have been thrust into more playing time than expected early in the absence of Falatea and are off to fabulous starts.

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Woolston is averaging 15.4 points and 4.1 rebounds, while Whiting is averaging 11.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

“I would just say we got a lot of fight,” Amari Whiting said. “… We just want to win. Coach has been preaching it since Day 1 — we just have to fight. The Big 12 is obviously not going to be easy. There are top players on every team. Just coming in and fighting every day, I feel like that is one of our strengths, for sure.”

Junior forward Emma Calvert concurred. The Fremont High product said she’s been impressed with what the freshmen have delivered.

“We just have a lot of fight in us, and right now we are viewed as the underdogs, for sure, which is fine with us,” Calvert said. “But I think we have a lot of good pieces on our team. It is really hard to guard all of us. Some people you can’t guard with just one person, and if you try to double us it is just going to go to someone else.”

BYU head coach Amber Whiting yells out instructions as Utah and BYU women play at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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