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BYU women’s basketball: Cougars return almost entirely intact from a year ago, save one notable exception

The Cougars finished strong last season, but will have to make do this year without the services of one very prominent part

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FILE - BYU coach Jeff Judkins talks with guard Paisley Johnson at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — The BYU women’s basketball team returns almost entirely intact from last season, save for one gaping hole that no one is pretending will be easily filled.

The last game played by then-freshman Shaylee Gonzales saw the BYU sharp-shooter at her best in wrapping up a phenomenal freshman campaign.

The venue was the second round of the NCAA tournament versus powerhouse Stanford with the 5-foot-10 guard putting on the type of clinic which had coaches from both teams completely gushing in postgame, despite BYU ultimately losing 72-63. Gonzales put the Cougars on her back that night, scoring 32 points while being easily considered the best player on the court.

But an ACL tear sustained in the offseason will have Gonzales sidelined for all the coming season, with the gravity of the loss not lost on anyone.

“We have a lot back, but when you lose a team player like Shaylee, who was a big part of our team offensively and defensively, it changes a lot of things,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. “... But I think that it’s happened early enough that our team has had some time to kind of figure things out.”

And it’s not like Judkins has to deal with a bare cupboard.

The Cougars return several key pieces, beginning with senior guard Brenna Chase, who added the last name “Drollinger” after getting married in the offseason. Drollinger is a two-time West Coast Conference 1st-teamer and will be someone depended on a lot to lead the team while making strides to improve her already stellar floor game.

“She got married this summer, but she’s really prepared herself well and her husband is very supportive,” Judkins said. “It should be a great year for her.”

Another standout player returning is guard Paisley Johnson, who enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last season as a sophomore en route to being named the MVP of the West Coast Conference championship. This year, Johnson will be asked to shoulder even more of a load in the wake of Gonzales’ absence.

“Paisley is going to have to score more,” Judkins said. “She’s going to have to be more of a leader and be more consistent, and not get in foul trouble.”

Replacing Gonzales directly at the point guard will likely be junior Maria Albiero, who played effectively off the bench last season.

The player who could stand to see the most improvement this season, however, is junior 6-foot-7 center Sara Hamson, who made the decision after last season to forgo playing for the BYU volleyball team to just focus on basketball.

“I feel like I’m going to have a lot less stress and to be more free and let loose,” Hamson said while mentioning the conditioning aspect will help, “a lot.”

Judkins has already noted improvement in Hamson’s game and believes she’ll help form a formidable front court along with returning players such as Shalae Salmon (6-3) and Jasmine Moody (6-2.)

Judkins is also expecting increased contributions from 6-1 sophomore Babalu Ugwu, 6-5 sophomore Malli Valgardson Perri and 6-1 sophomore Signe Glantz.

Overall the Cougars were picked to finish second in WCC play by conference coaches, despite winning the championship a season ago.

The Cougar season begins October 29 with a game versus Westminster at the Marriott Center and continues through February 29.