Just as BYU’s football program adds the necessary pieces for its debut season in the Big 12, the women’s basketball team may be losing one — a big one.

The transfer portal features a door that swings both ways.

Lauren Gustin announced on her Instagram page Sunday night that she was entering the transfer portal. She told me it didn’t necessarily mean she was leaving, but it was a step that allowed her to take a look around and “explore some options.”

She’s right and by today’s collegiate sports constitution, the new and empowering student-athlete bill of rights gives her the right to do it.

Gustin is no different from transfer linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (Utah State), offensive lineman Caleb Etienne (Oklahoma State), quarterback Kedon Slovis (Pittsburgh), running back Aidan Robbins (UNLV), cornerback Eddie Heckard (Weber State), defensive end Isaiah Bagnah (Boise State) and several others. They all decided to take a look around.

It’s easy to celebrate the arrivals, but the departures can sting. The transfer portal giveth and it taketh away.

The football program lost the Barrington brothers to Baylor, Keenan Pili to Tennessee and Logan Fano to Utah. On the other hand, Charlotte just watched its 6-foot-11 center Aly Khalifa pack his bags to join Mark Pope’s roster in Provo. Last winter, Oregon looked on as four-star guard Jennah Isai left the Ducks to play for Amber Whiting’s Cougars.

Everybody is replaceable, but some, like Gustin, are a little more difficult.

Not only did the former Salem High star stick around to play for Whiting, but she also anchored the team both physically and emotionally during a rebuilding 16-17 season, a far cry from the 26-4 record the year before.

When just about everybody left last spring, due to transfers, graduations or retirement, including head coach Jeff Judkins and teammates Shaylee Gonzales, Paisley Harding, Tegan Graham, Maria Albiero and Sara Hamson, Gustin stayed. She bought what her first-year coach was selling — and then she sold it to the rest of the team. She was Whiting’s MVP.

At 6-foot-1, Gustin often faced taller defenders, but she consistently beat them to the ball. Her rebounding average of 16.7 was No. 1 in the nation, even topping Angel Reese (15.4), the star of LSU’s national championship team.

In the WCC, Gustin was even better, averaging 17.6 rebounds per game. San Francisco and San Diego are still trying to figure out how she outrebounded their entire teams during games last season. Gustin outboarded the Toreros (24-23) on Jan. 7 and did the same to LMU (24-22) on Jan. 12.

BYU women’s basketball’s best player, Lauren Gustin, has entered the transfer portal
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Gustin’s grit kept the younger Cougars fighting and if the 2022-23 season was truly her last at BYU, she should be remembered among the greats — even with the likes of All-American and Hall of Famer Tina Gunn, whose single season rebounding record (462) was surpassed by Gustin after it stood proudly for 43 years.

Whiting hopes that Gustin will take a look around and see that BYU is still the best fit for her final year of eligibility. There will be help if she returns. Whiting signed 6-3 Jana Sallman and 6-2 Marina Mata to join the returning 6-4 Emma Calvert.

Gustin could also decide that, after “exploring her options,” the notion of leading BYU into its first year in the Big 12 is enough to pull her back. The idea of playing with a pair of young, but four-star guards, Isai and Amari Whiting, along with returning starter Nani Falatea, might be attractive, too.

But the reality is, with her reputation as one of the nation’s top rebounders, and the potential for significant NIL money, Gustin will have plenty of suitors. The portal closes for winter athletes on May 11, except for those who are graduating.

With a college degree in hand, Gustin has a passport to travel through the portal anytime and spend her last year anywhere she wants. Understandably, BYU hopes she returns, and she might. But can you really blame a grad student from taking a look around to see what else is out there?

Sitake is sure glad Slovis did.

BYU forward Lauren Gustin looks to score aginst Rice in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News