Despite entering the West Coast Conference tournament on a three-game losing streak, the BYU women’s basketball team made the most of its opportunity in Las Vegas. 

The Cougars beat Pepperdine and San Francisco before falling to top-seeded Gonzaga 79-64 in Monday’s semifinal. 

“I am proud of how they came out. I’m proud of how they finished. I’m proud of how they fought. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them.” — BYU coach Amber Whiting

Playing three games in four days may have taken a toll on BYU, but following the disappointing loss, first-year coach Amber Whiting was pleased with her team.

“Right now, this moment, it can’t define us and it won’t define us. We’ve just got to pick ourselves back up and go again tomorrow,” she said. “I am proud of how they came out. I’m proud of how they finished. I’m proud of how they fought. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them.”

BYU guard Arielle Mackey-Williams was also pleased with her team’s overall performance in the tournament. 

“I think that we came out really, really strong,” she said. “We all had that mindset throughout the whole tournament that we wanted to win and play hard and play for each other. I’m really proud of our team and our coaches. (Monday), we just couldn’t execute.”

Mackey-Williams entered the postgame press conference after the setback looking spent. 

“Like Ari said when she came in, her body’s broken,” Whiting said. “She gave everything she had. Those types of players are the players I want to coach day in and day out. They’re fun to get in the gym with.”

For Gonzaga star Yvonne Ejim, who scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Cougars, it didn’t dawn on her that this was BYU’s final game in the league until after the final buzzer. 

“Honestly, I thought about it after the game,” she said. “I realized that we’re never going to see them again. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

The Zags ended up losing to No. 2 seed Portland in Tuesday’s championship game.

With a 16-16 overall record, and a fifth-place finish in the WCC standings, BYU’s season is likely over. 

But Whiting’s inaugural season at the helm produced some positive momentum for the future as the Cougars prepare for life in the Big 12. 

Whiting learned a lot in BYU’s final season in the WCC and is optimistic about the future. 

“It’s a good conference with a lot of really good players and a lot of good coaches,” Whiting said. “Definitely looking forward to the future in what we built this year and adding to it next year. I think we have a pretty good base of what we’re going to have going forward.”

Among the positives was junior forward Lauren Gustin, who earned WCC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. Gustin led the country in rebounding (16.5) and broke the league’s all-time single-game rebounding record with 27 against USF in the WCC tournament. 

Gustin also set the WCC single-season rebound record and recorded 27 double-doubles. 

Gustin eclipsed two-time All-American and 1980 National Player of the Year Tina Gunn Robinson for the school’s single-season rebounding record (532) and she tied the Marriott Center record for rebounds in a game (24) twice. 

Meanwhile, sophomore guard Nani Falatea earned All-WCC first team honors with Gustin, while redshirt freshman Amanda Barcello was named to the WCC All-Freshman Team. 

That gives the Cougars a strong nucleus going forward. 

In November, BYU signed an impressive recruiting class for the 2023-24 season.

The Cougars added five players, including Whiting’s daughter, Amari, the No. 33 overall player in ESPN’s Top 100 recruiting rankings. Amari is coming off a serious knee injury suffered before her senior season.

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“The thing that makes Amari special is that she is a defensive dog that loves the fight. Amari relies on her defensive pressure to kick-start her game,” Amber Whiting said. “She’s a fierce competitor that plays both ends of the floor and does whatever it takes to help her team win. She takes challenges head on and has a contagious competitive spirit that will be a game changer for us heading into the Big 12.”

Oregon transfer Jennah Isai transferred to BYU in January. She’ll be eligible for the upcoming season. The 5-foot-11 guard was the No. 36 ranked prospect in the class of 2022 by

BYU also signed Marina Mata, regarded as the top player from Spain. 

“Marina is a hidden gem that comes to us from Spain, where she is a top player against international competition and is primed to step in to make a big difference in the Big 12,” Whiting said. “Her ceiling is incredibly high. She’s a 6-2, long, versatile player with a high basketball IQ who can shoot the 3 and finish at the rim.

“She’ll have an immediate impact on the defensive end of the ball and will create problems for other teams with her ability to rebound and get out and run the court. She has a great work ethic and will be a great asset to our program.”

Another signee is Kailey Woolston, who led Lone Peak High to back-to-back 6A state championships. 

“Kailey is a coach’s dream. She is a hardworking blue-collar type player who is going to outwork you every day. She is a high-character kid that comes from a great family,” Whiting said. “She’s an exceptional 3-point shooter and always looks to take on the challenge of defending the opposing team’s best player.

“She’s not afraid of the fight and does all the little things to help her team win. She will help stretch the floor and brings a defense-first mindset.”

BYU also signed Ali’a Matavao, the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year, and Ashala Moseberry out of South Plains College. 

“I am really excited about this 2023 class,” Whiting said. “These ladies are special. They are high-character kids that play the game because they love it. They each have that defensive-first mentality and aren’t afraid to work hard. Individually they bring something that compliments each other. I am looking forward to getting them all here and going to work.”

BYU coach Amber Whiting instructs her team during a victory over Pepperdine in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas last week. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo