That the BYU women’s basketball team was able to knock off then-No. 16 Gonzaga a week ago wasn’t a big surprise.
But the victory has done a lot for the Cougars’ confidence and morale as they enter the final weekend of the regular season.
BYU (16-3, 12-2) has won seven consecutive games and finds itself peaking at the right time. The Cougars have secured the No. 2 seed in the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas next week and they’re projected as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Beating Gonzaga, we always know, it’s a big game. It’s a rival in our conference,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “We felt like we played really well at Gonzaga but we made a few mistakes at the end. That’s kind of what happened to them here. Beating them, beating a ranked team, getting that momentum has helped us in knowing that we can do it.”
This current winning streak was fueled by the Cougars’ 63-56 setback at Gonzaga on Feb. 2.
“Ever since our loss at Gonzaga,” said forward Lauren Gustin, who averages a double-double — 12 points and 12 rebounds — per game, “we just decided that we weren’t going to lose again.”
BYU knocked off the Zags 61-56 Thursday, then beat Portland 75-68 last Saturday. Gonzaga fell to No. 21 in the Associated Press poll last Monday.
“After the Gonzaga win, we were on cloud nine afterwards. It was exciting,” Gustin said. “After losing at their place, we were so eager to have them at our place. We knew we had the potential to beat them so it was rewarding to be able to have them at home and get that ‘W’. It was much-needed and we were ready for it.”
BYU finishes the regular season at Santa Clara Thursday and at San Francisco Saturday.
“We’ve got to close out this season strong. We can’t have any letdowns,” Gustin said. “We’ve got to get ready for the tournament. All our energy has to go into Thursday and Saturday before we can move on to the tournament.”
“There’s a lot of pressure for us, but as a team we need to come together,” said guard Shaylee Gonzales, who averages a team-high 18.1 points and four assists a game. “We need to get prepared for this week. This week is huge for us. We need to win these games then head to the WCC with confidence.”
For Judkins, helping his team peak at the right time is part of a concerted process.
“We’re playing a lot better now. That’s what I’ve tried to do as a coach — get my team prepared to play their best basketball now,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. Most of the time it does, if you plan it right.”
During practices, Judkins gives his players plenty of rest to keep them fresh while keeping their desire to play strong.
“I watch teams now and you can just tell that they’re done. They don’t want to play anymore,” he said. “With COVID-19, it’s been even harder. This team has handled COVID-19 as good as anybody. They’ve come to practice every day willing to learn and work hard. It’s made my job a lot easier as a coach. And, of course, we want to win. They’re here to win. They’re not here to come in the middle of the pack. They want to win a championship and they want to go to the NCAA Tournament. I think we are playing our best basketball right now. Hopefully, we can get a little bit better and have a good week and get ready for the tournament.”
The past couple of weeks, Gonzales said, Judkins has admonished his team to “buckle down and focus,” which it has done to this point.
“The Portland and Gonzaga games were really important for us to win. Those were huge for us,” Gonzales said. “(Judkins) told us that if we wanted to win the WCC and go to the NCAA Tournament, we needed to win those games. He does an amazing job of preparing us for the games. Our assistant coaches watch lots of film. … Lots of preparation helps us in the long run.”
Gustin is looking forward to seeing where the season takes her team.
“We have a lot more that we can accomplish,” she said. “We’re just excited to get to the tournament and we’re planning to go to the NCAAs. We’re excited to see what happens.”