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Harding's 25 points power BYU over Arizona State

BYU guard Paisley Johnson Harding shoots during an NCAA women's basketball tournament second-round game, Wednesday, March 24, 2021 at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Texas.

BYU guard Paisley Johnson Harding shoots during an NCAA women's basketball tournament second-round game, Wednesday, March 24, 2021 at the UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Texas. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

PROVO β€” The Cougars came to put on a show in the Marriott Center Wednesday during a midday game. But it wasn't for a typical crowd.

With thousands of screaming elementary students in the arena, BYU won a scrappy battle 55-44 against Arizona State to remain undefeated on the young season.

Paisley Harding led all scores with 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting and 7-of-9 from the charity stripe. While Shaylee Gonzales, last season's West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year, was forced to come out with three fouls early in the second quarter and starting point guard Maria Albiero was out nursing an injury suffered in the first quarter, it was Harding who took on the scoring responsibilities.

She had 9 points in the second quarter, including a euro-layup in front of the rim at the buzzer, that powered the Cougars through the 10 minutes and pushed the lead to nine at the half.

Freshman Nani Falatea and Ariellle Mackey-Williams saw extended minutes in the second quarter with Gonzales, Albiero and Kaylee Smiler, who hurt her knee in the first quarter, on the sideline. Head coach Jeff Judkins said the play and composure of his freshmen was the "key" in the win.

"Tonight was kind of different; two of my guards get hurt, can't go in; my third guard, Shaylee, gets her third foul," Judkins said. "I sent those two freshmen in and I thought they did a really good job β€” came in and really didn't lose their composure, just did what they needed to do.

"I think that was the key. It was a key to our win because if we would've lost the lead and gone into halftime losing or tied when we had the lead, it would've been tougher to bounce back. That's what's fun about this team: They win in different ways."

At the tipoff, the Cougars were dialed in on defense and forced the Sun Devils into contested and low-percentage shots. Mael Gilles scored the first basket of the game for Arizona State, but that was one of the few baskets her team saw go through the net during the period. The Sun Devils made only one of their next 13 shots and were held to 22% shooting from the floor (0% from 3-point range) in the quarter.

The sound defense didn't let up through the next three quarters. The Sun Devils finished the game shooting just under 30%, 13% from 3-point range and 42% from the free-throw line. Jade Loville, who averaged 16.5 points during the first two games of the season, was held to only 4 points, and no player for the Sun Devils scored in double digits.

"Defense wins games, and I tell my team that all the time," Judkins said. "If we can defend and we can hold people, we're gonna win, so that's what the game was today."

Entering the second half with a 9-point lead, BYU found a rhythm in the offense with Gonzales and Albiero back on the court, and put up a 16-point quarter while holding ASU to single digits. Gonzales was quick to make an impact scoring a layup to begin the half. But it was a set of free throws she made three minutes into the quarter that sparked a 12-2 run for the Cougars that included three consecutive jumpers made by Harding.

"Coming into this game, we knew that it was gonna be like a super competitive game, Pac-12 team. We prepared very well for this team," Gonzales said. "We came in and we executed very well. We knew that they had some good shooters, good drivers, and our defense was just awesome tonight."

Gonzales, while not playing in the second quarter, still scored 13 points, going a perfect 4-of-4 from the free-throw line, and added seven rebounds. Lauren Gustin led the Cougars down low, scoring 10 points and grabbing 16 rebounds (four offensive) in her 35 minutes of play.

Gustin was ranked sixth in the nation and led the conference in rebounds per game a year ago. Her knack for locating the ball on missed shots is what BYU needed to close out defensive possessions against an aggressive ASU. But when she was off the floor, the Cougars struggled closing out possessions, giving up 16 offensive rebounds in total.

"When Lauren's out of there, it's surely missed; players feel that," Judkins said. "When she's gone, it's like who is rebounding?"

The Sun Devils put on a full-court press and increased the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter. It proved to be effective as the Cougars were forced into eight turnovers. But after a timeout was called by Judkins midway through the quarter, the Cougars were able to play the remaining five minutes with composure and maintained their lead to close out the game.

BYU returns to the Marriott Center on Saturday to host Boise State at 2:00 p.m. MT.

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