PROVO — Expectations have been raised for the BYU women’s basketball team, which made the result of the 2019-2020 season seem like more of a disappointment than it probably should have.
The Cougars wrapped things up with an 18-11 overall record and 13-5 mark in West Coast Conference play. They earned a tie for second place in conference play and a No. 3 seed in the tournament while generally exceeding a lot of expectations.
“A lot of years you’d look at what we did and think, ‘Yeah, that was a pretty good year,’” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins.
But a loss to No. 6-seeded Pepperdine in the WCC tournament, contrasted with how well the team performed the year prior, left players like junior guard Paisley Johnson dissatisfied yet excited for the future.
Johnson had a bit of a breakthrough during the 2018-19 WCC postseason, and was named the tournament MVP, as a result. The Cougars won the tournament that season, and then moved on to defeat Auburn in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing a competitive game versus Stanford.
With much of that team returning for the 2019-2020 season, expectations were set reasonably high before a devastating injury to star freshman guard Shaylee Gonzales derailed hopes quite a bit.
“Yeah, that changed things quite a bit for us,” Johnson said. “We all had to accept and then learn different roles, and it took us a while to get things going. It was tough on me, mentally, being put in a role I’ve been been before. But looking back, we’re going to be stronger for it. I know that I feel I am.”
Johnson’s role necessitated her becoming more of a playmaker, but also changed roles for everyone up and down the roster.
“Sara Hamson had to look to be more aggressive on offense. Paisley had to change roles, and then Maria (Albiero) had a big change in what we were looking at her to do, and that’s just a few of them,” Judkins said. “But I feel most of the players accepted their new roles and stepped up to the challenge, and we’ll be better for it.”
The Cougars will lose contributors like Shalae Salmon, Jasmine Moody, and perhaps most significantly, Brenna Drollinger, along with Khaedin Taito, who was beset with injury throughout her BYU career. But returning will be Gonzales, along with transfer Lauren Gustin — both of whom should rise to play significant roles.
Gonzales’ role was etched out during her remarkable freshman year, where she ran the point and averaged 17 points per game. She’ll likely reprise her role and, according to Judkins, is already recovered from her torn ACL injury.
“She’s special. I mean, she’s a really, really special player,” Judkins said. “She did so much for us, as a freshman, and we think she’s just going to get better and better.”
As for Gustin, she presents a strong presence inside, which should complement Hamson well, while effectively replacing some of the void left by Salmon and Moody.
“We’re all so excited to have Lauren here at BYU. You could tell immediately that she’s a special player,” Johnson said. “She’s just a bucket, and very coachable, and just a bucket with how she’s able to score. Defensively she’s made big strides and will be a lockdown defender for us. I just can’t say how excited I am to play with her in games next season.”
Of those returning, the group is led by the starters, which include Johnson, Hamson, Albiero, with Judkins anticipating more contribution from players like Babalu Ugwu (6-foot So.), Kaylee Smiler (5-8 Fr.) and Kyra Beckman (6-2 Fr.), among others.
“We have a good young group of players that I’m real excited about,” Judkins said. “It’s a talented group, and a lot of them are going to improve for us and play big roles.”
Judkins is mindful of those moving on, and was complimentary to each, stating how grateful he was for all his graduating seniors.
As for Taito, Judkins said, “Not to be able to have her, and all of her talent was truly unfortunate. She just couldn’t get healthy, which was a real shame because people won’t ever realize just how talented she was and how much she could have helped us.”
With Moody, Judkins describes, “a player who battled through a lot of injuries this past year, but she’s improved so much — not only on the basketball court, but with tough things in her life. She’s been so pleasant to have for us and I’m just so proud of her.”
Concerning Salmon, and her contributions, Judkins said, “She also had a lot of injuries — a lot of concussions, which forced us to be really careful with her. But Shalae is just such a delight to be around and to coach. She always had a great attitude and truly wanted to do what was best for the team.”
Judkins said BYU will miss the void left by Drollinger, who has played a big role on the team since her sophomore year.
“How do you replace a kid who was all-conference for three years?,” Judkins asked. “She had to adjust her game for her final year because of the loss of Gonzales, but she worked through it, like she always seemed to do with everything while she was here. She did so many things for us that are going to be very, very tough to replace. We’ll miss her quite a bit.”
As for the 2020-2021 season, Johnson is raring to go, along with just about everyone else.
“I want to start tomorrow,” Johnson said. “We’re going to miss the players who are leaving, but feel we have a lot coming back to again make a big run, which is why I came here in the first place. I feel like great things are in store for us next season.”