In terms of the opponent’s national ranking, it might have been the most impressive win in the history of the BYU women’s basketball program.
Might have been.
The Cougars pushed No. 4 Kansas State to the brink of a massive upset Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, Kansas, but couldn’t quite overcome the now-No. 2 Wildcats’ advantage at the free-throw line and fell 67-65 in front of 8,180 fans at Bramlage Coliseum.
“I don’t like moral victories. They are not my thing. I feel like we are so close at just getting over the hump. That would have been one of the biggest wins in BYU history. I felt like we were right there.” — BYU women’s basketball coach Amber Whiting
BYU (2-6, 12-9) tumbled to a tie for 10th with fellow Big 12 newcomer Cincinnati in the conference standings, but coach Amber Whiting said Monday after the Cougars returned to Provo that there is plenty to build upon moving forward.
“I don’t like moral victories. They are not my thing. I feel like we are so close at just getting over the hump,” Whiting said. “That would have been one of the biggest wins in BYU history. I felt like we were right there. … Super proud of how they fought and how they didn’t go away in that environment. There were like 8,200 people there. It was crazy.”
An upset — it should be noted that KSU was without star center Ayoka Lee, sidelined with an ankle injury — would have sent shock waves across the league. But Kaylee Smiler’s 15-foot jumper with two seconds remaining rimmed out, and K-State survived to stay unbeaten in Big 12 play (9-0) and 20-1 overall.
BYU made five more field goals than the home team — senior rebounding machine Lauren Gustin had 25 points and 21 rebounds in a monster performance — but K-State made five more 3-pointers (10-5) and took 13 more free throws (23-10).
“I don’t care that people are calling fouls on us, but let’s just make it so that we all are playing the same game, you know?” Whiting said Monday. “It is hard. I want my girls at the line. And I want my girls aggressive. And it is hard to be aggressive and get to the line when we are not getting those same fouls called.”
Twenty fouls were called on BYU, while 11 were called on KSU, despite that BYU outscored the Wildcats 42-22 in the paint.
But that game is over. The question now becomes how BYU, which was picked to finish 11th in the 14-team league and has pretty much played to that expectation, can build on that performance moving forward, beginning with Wednesday’s game at Kansas (3-6, 10-10) at the venerable Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I feel like if they take that same fight, that same buy-in, that same connectivity to any game, they can win,” Whiting said. “… You always look for your teams to not plateau, but like, build every game — up, up, up, and play your best basketball in March. And so as long as they stay in that same mindset and stay on attack mode and stay connected that’s where I really feel like they can build momentum from that game.”
Kansas State has won 15 straight games and attained its highest ranking, No. 2, since Nov. 25, 2002.
But if Saturday’s game showed anything, it is that BYU isn’t going to be overwhelmed in this league, as appeared to be the case on Jan. 17 when it was routed 82-50 by so-so Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
Whiting called that loss “a good, old-fashioned butt kicking,” and seemed resigned to a lot more setbacks like that one, especially on the road. But the 60-48 win over Texas Tech at the Marriott Center on Jan. 20 that saw Gustin break Tina Gunn’s 44-year-old school rebounding record of 1,482 collected caroms may have been a turning point.
She now has 1,514.
Gustin said last Thursday that the competition level in the Big 12 was what she expected.
“Super intense. All the girls bring a lot to the table. You can’t worry about one or two people on the court. You gotta worry about all five out there,” she said. “There are a lot of talented players, players who are very strong. A lot of well-coached girls. So yeah, definitely a higher level, for sure. It was what I was expecting, for sure.”
Teammate Ali’a Matavao said Gustin’s energy and drive is propelling the young team to reach higher.
“She has been everything to us,” Matavao said. “She pushes all of us and she wants it so bad so she makes all of us want it even more. She is up there and we all want to match her intensity. She really gets us going and when she is on, we are all on.”
That this group is competitive in a Power Six conference is somewhat surprising, considering that five players who Whiting thought she would have this past summer are no longer a part of the program, or are sitting out with a season-ending injury.
Most notably, returning starting point guard Nani Falatea stepped away in early December, and junior guard Arielle Mackey-Williams, who averaged 15.1 points per game in 2022-23, is out with an ACL injury.
“I would have had five players on the roster right now that I don’t have. They all had different reasons across the board (for not being here),” Whiting said. “Having those five would have changed what we are doing tremendously.”
The flip side, Whiting said, is that she doesn’t have the problem of having to find minutes for deserving players. Rather, now she stays awake at night worrying about depth issues and fatigue setting in.
Another positive of the departures and injuries is that freshmen Kailey Woolston and Amari Whiting — the coach’s daughter — have been able to get tons of early playing time. Both have started in all 20 games, and both are shoo-ins for the Big 12 All-Freshman Team.
Cougars on the air
BYU (2-6, 12-9)
at Kansas (3-6, 10-10)
Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. MST
Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kansas
Radio: 107.9 FM/BYU Radio app
Woolston is averaging 13.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, while Whiting is averaging 10.8 points and 5.0 rebounds. Whiting leads the team with 76 assists, while Smiler has 70 and is also averaging 8.1 points per game.
Emma Calvert chips in 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds.
“Obviously we have had some tough losses. But I am proud of us for showing up and competing. I think we are still trying to get used to the styles of different teams,” Gustin said. “In the West Coast Conference, we had been there for so many years, you kinda knew what to expect with each team and what their advantages were.
“But with the Big 12 it is definitely different. We are playing girls we have never played before. We are adjusting to that, for sure, and trying to figure out the flow of ourselves as well,” she continued. “I am proud of us for competing every game. We are definitely out there doing our best.”