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BYU women hold off Utes’ rally to stay undefeated

BYU Cougars players react after a three point make as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. BYU won 85-80.
BYU Cougars players react after a three point make as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. BYU won 85-80.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As a way to drum up support and build an environment like the University of Utah sees at its Pac-12 Conference road games, the Utes gave all fans dressed in red free entry to Saturday evening’s game against rival and 21st-ranked BYU.

All of the blue-clad fans had to pay, but they got their money’s worth as Paisley Harding scored 33 points to help the Cougars stayed undefeated so far this season by holding off the Utes 85-80.

“It’s been flowing for us all season,” said Harding, who had 19 points by halftime en route to her career high. “We got tired at the end, but we pulled it out.”

Harding made 14 of 20 shots and added four 3-pointers. She was the key reason the Cougars shot 59 percent from the field and had built a 21-point lead midway through the third quarter.

BYU also got 22 points from Shaylee Gonzalez, and teammates Tegan Graham, Sarah Hamson and Emma Calvert made timely baskets and added a few defensive stops as the Cougars improved to 8-0.

BYU coach Jeff Judkins, a Utah grad and former men’s assistant coach on the hill, kept his game face on and only smiled after the clock struck zero.

While his bench was filled with eligible players, only seven players got onto the court.

Four players, including all-league forward Lauren Gustin, stayed in Provo reportedly dealing with illnesses. Harding’s effort kept their invisibility from being the game’s most-important story.

Harding had 28 points in a game twice last year. Afterward on Saturday, she admitted she was “feeling it” more than usual and the Utes couldn’t find an answer.

“This year’s BYU team is legit,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts. “This is the best team ‘Juddy’ has had since I’ve been here. They have a real chance to win their league and go far in the (NCAA) tourney.”

The Utes might, too, if they can learn from this game.

Roberts substituted freely, even into the fourth quarter when she found her hottest shooters to cut into BYU’s lead.

Eleven players got court time, and eight were on the floor at least 17 minutes. Gianna Kneepkens led with 29 points and helped the Utes blister the nets with five treys in the final 10 minutes.

Roberts also praised guard Dru Gylten, who had seven points and found the open shooters (eight assists), especially in the final quarter.

Roberts said the Utes’ preseason schedule, which has included BYU, Gonzaga and a pair of team-building games at Hawaii, should be helpful as they prepare for their grueling Pac-12 schedule.

Utah has just three more games before traveling to play at Oregon, and she expects most Pac-12 opponents to have more than twice as many fans as the estimated crowd of 3,000 that were dressed in red (and blue) in this game.

“We’re trying to build something,” she said. “It starts with the product you put on the floor. I want women’s basketball to matter and I want people to care.”