The fortunes of BYU’s women’s basketball team this season rise and fall with the play of standout guards Paisley Johnson Harding and Shaylee Gonzales, and on Monday they rose as the stars combined for 45 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the Cougars’ 69-66 win over Rutgers in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
But don’t forget about another all-conference player on BYU’s roster, and the only one who earned AP All-America honorable mention accolades last week, sophomore forward Lauren Gustin. The 6-foot-1 forward from Salem is sixth in the nation in rebounds per game (12.70) and has registered 15 double-doubles this season, which is 11th-best in the country.
The 11th-seeded Cougars (19-5) will need contributions from their three all-league players and almost everyone else if they hope to knock off No. 3 seed Arizona (17-5) on Wednesday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPNU) in a second-round game at UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The Wildcats beat No. 14 seed Stony Brook 79-44 on Monday. They earned an at-large bid to the Big Dance after finishing second in the Pac-12. Senior guard Aari McDonald averages 19.4 points per game and is an AP Second-Team All-American.
“When you think basketball, Arizona is definitely one of the schools you think about,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. “… We are going to have our hands full.”
Gustin added 10 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Rutgers, while playing 39 minutes. With fellow big Sara Hamson in foul trouble, Gustin held her own inside.
“I just have always loved the weight room and nutrition,” Gustin said, crediting her older brother for instilling that in her. “I have always loved that stuff growing up.”
Her older brother is former USC linebacker and current Cleveland Browns defensive end Porter Gustin. She knows how to mix it up with the best of them, and she can probably outlast them as well.
“She is by far the best in-shape player in this tournament,” Judkins said. “I would put her against anybody in this tournament. … She is strong, she can run, she doesn’t get tired. She can play physically the whole game.”
After graduating from Salem High in southern Utah County, Lauren Gustin began her college career at Idaho, but left after one semester and transferred to Salt Lake Community College, where she averaged 19.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game.
When Gustin was looking for another Division I program, she remembered playing with Gonzales at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Arizona, and thought it would be good to reunite in Provo with her good friend.
Gustin averages 12.8 rebounds and 11.5 points per game for the Cougars. She had 27 points and 20 rebounds in a win over Pepperdine on Feb. 4, the best rebounding performance for a Cougar since Tina Gunn grabbed 23 against Utah State in 1979. She doesn’t hesitate when she’s asked where her toughness comes from.
“Definitely from my brother,” she said. “He has been a role model of mine. … We were always playing basketball and sports growing up together. He definitely taught me some toughness.”
Can she take the NFL player in a game of one-on-one?
“I can’t say I can,” she said, laughing. “I wish I could. He scares me a little bit, but maybe one day.”
Getting back to the Wildcats, Judkins said Arizona will be the best defensive team the Cougars have faced this season.
“Well first of all, they have an All-American point guard that creates, and is a jet, and we are going to have to hold her down a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know how. It will probably be getting back and building a wall and not let her penetrate. They also have a lot of good all-around players that kind of do their role.”
That kind of team play is what has enabled the Cougars to reach the round of 32 for the second time in three years. They are 2-2 in second-round games, having advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2014.
“We are very deep and I know I can count on every single one of my teammates,” said Gonzales, the WCC co-Player of the Year with Gonzaga’s Jenn Wirth. “We come together and tell each other that we have each other’s backs.”
Gonzales said after the Cougars lost to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game on a buzzer-beater, they got together and vowed to make a deep run in whatever tournament they made.
“We knew coming into Selection Monday that we were either going to make the NCAA Tournament or make the NIT tournament and if it was the NIT we were going to win the whole tournament,” she said.
BYU leads the all-time series 8-5 with Arizona — a former rival in the old WAC — and has won the last three matchups, most recently 64-56 in Provo in 2013.