Harding's 22 rallies No. 16 BYU women by Gonzaga for crucial road win

BYU Cougars guard Paisley Johnson Harding (13) runs back down court after dropping in a shot as BYU and San Francisco play in West Coast Conference basketball tournament semifinal action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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PROVO β€” Paisley Harding had another one of those games Saturday afternoon β€” right when the BYU women's basketball team needed it most.

Harding poured in a game-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting to go along with four rebounds as No. 16 BYU bounced back from its first conference loss of the year with a 62-50 road win over Gonzaga at the McCarthy Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington.

Lauren Gustin posted her 11th double-double of the season and 25th of her career with 12 points and 10 rebounds for BYU, and Shaylee Gonzales finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals for the Cougars (19-2, 9-1 WCC), who outscored the Bulldogs 19-3 in the third quarter and 42-15 in the second half.

The win gives BYU a 1.5-game lead over Gonzaga, snapping the Zags' seven-game winning streak to take control of the top spot in the conference standings with six games remaining.

"It is tough to win here. Really tough to win," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "I expected our team to compete and challenged them after the first half and I am so proud of how they responded.

"Paisley is a big part of tonight's win. Her toughness and coming back and playing is exactly what this team is. They were tough and when they play that way they are a very good team."

Harding, the reigning West Coast Conference player of the week who averaged 19.0 points in three games last week, went to work again in the Kennel. But she also did some of her best work on the defensive end, helping the Cougars hold the Zags to 6-of-29 shooting, including 0 for 8 from the 3-point line, in the second half after trailing by as much as 15 points at halftime.

Saturday marked the ninth time this season Harding has scored 19 or more points, including a 33 points Dec. 4 in an 85-80 win at Utah.

Melody Kempton led Gonzaga with 10 points and seven rebounds, and Kayleigh Truong, Cierra Walker and Yvonne Ejim each scored 9 for the Zags (17-5, 8-1 WCC).

The Cougars entered the week ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring margin with 20.6 points per game and the 12th-best scoring offense in the NCAA at 78.9 points per contest, but were slowed by a 75-64 road setback Thursday night at Portland.

Much like the last loss β€” a 99-91 road setback Dec. 10 at Oklahoma, BYU didn't let one turn into a streak. This is the No. 16 team in the latest Associated Press Top 25, after all.

Truong and Walker each scored 9 points in the first half for the Zags, who out rebounded BYU 25-14 and scored 13 points off eight turnovers en route to a 35-20 halftime lead.

The Zags went up just 20 seconds into the game when Walker hit a 3-pointer off the opening tip, and never looked back, shooting 7 of 11 from 3-point range and scoring 13 points off eight turnovers en route to the 15-point advantage.

The Cougars shot 0 for 11 from 3-point range in the first half.

Harding had 10 points at the break to lead BYU, which had just two assists β€” both from Gonzales β€” on eight first-half field goals. The 5-foot-9 senior from Everett, Washington went into the locker room to receive sutures for a cut under her eye and emerged after Gonzaga's team doctor, aided by BYU's traveling medical staff, had repaired the laceration.

It did nothing to impact her shooting ability, though. In fact, it might have helped her pace a furious rally just 300 miles from where she starred at Glacier Peak High School.

BYU used a 14-2 run out of the break, holding the Zags scoreless from the field for over half of the third quarter and cut the deficit as close as 38-36 on Harding's 3-pointer with 2 minutes left in the quarter.

The fifth-year senior gave BYU its first lead of the game with a layup with 1:20 on the clock, then immediately drew a charge on the other end β€” the second foul on Walker β€” to spearhead a 17-2 run over 6:28. In all, the Cougars outscored Gonzaga 19-3 in the third quarter, including 12 points from Harding.

BYU led by as much as 12 with 3:27 left, but Ejim completed a 3-point play with a put-back basket off a missed free throw to pull the Zags within seven, 55-48, down the stretch. But Sara Hamson found Gonzales on an outlet pass with 41 seconds left to help the Cougars stay ahead for good and beat the Zags in Spokane for just the second time in Judkins' 21 years as head coach.

Gonzales was held scoreless her first eight attempts from the field, until a jumper with 7:02 left in the game. But the redshirt sophomore had five rebounds, five assists and two steals to that point, pacing the Cougars' defensive effort and helping to hold Truong scoreless in the second half before fouling out with 1:03 remaining.

"We have to give Gonzaga a lot of credit," Judkins said. "Those guards are really solid. They did a good job forcing her out of what she likes to do."

BYU returns home next Thursday, Feb. 10 against Pepperdine before a road tip Feb. 12 at Saint Mary's. The Cougars and Zags are scheduled to meet again Saturday, Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. MST in Provo.

That leaves a good chance at two more meetings with Gonzaga before the NCAA Tournament, if both teams face off in the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas.

"We still have a lot of games left," Judkins said. "Gonzaga will have to come to our place and they play just as good on the road. That might decide who wins the conference. It will be exciting."

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