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PROVO — Paisley Harding doesn't remember what happened on the play, or even getting hurt — only that after diving for a loose ball during the BYU women's basketball game at Gonzaga and smacking off a teammate's errant knee, she came up from the hardwood with blood gushing from a 3-inch hole across her cheek.
Did it hurt?
"I didn't know right away. Until one of the Gonzaga girls said, 'that's so much blood,'" she recalled. "I looked down, and there was blood dripping down my face and on to the court.
"Ugh. That was annoying."
So Harding got up off the floor, jogged back to the locker room and — aided by BYU athletic trainer Jeff Hurst and Gonzaga's team doctor — took three stitches to her left stitch to repair perhaps the biggest cut she's ever suffered. And then she did something even more impressive; she came right back into the game, near the start of the third quarter, and scored 12 of her team-high 22 points to overturn a 15-point deficit en route to a 62-50 win over the Zags.
It was unlike anything Jeff Judkins, the head coach at BYU for the past two decades, has ever seen. But it didn't surprise him one bit. Harding is probably the toughest player in the West Coast Conference, maybe the toughest player on campus, and perhaps even the toughest player in BYU women's basketball history, Judkins postulated.
"Paisley is probably the toughest player in this league, and maybe the toughest player at BYU. Period," Judkins said. "She fights through everything, she has a great attitude towards it, and she doesn't ever feel sorry for herself.
"She just stepped up, didn't even warm up; I didn't ever start her in the third quarter, but she came in and played like she does all the time."
Harding slices through the defense for the 🪣#WCChoops | @byuwbbpic.twitter.com/R2xGGvcIYM— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) February 12, 2022
Just 10 days after the Cougars' second loss of the season — a shocking 75-64 setback Feb. 3 at Portland that snapped a 10-game winning streak — No. 20BYU is streaking again. Shaylee Gonzales poured in a career-high 35 points to go along with six assists and six steals as the Cougars rallied for an 84-69 victory Saturday at Saint Mary's for their third consecutive win.
Harding finished with 18 points and five rebounds for the Cougars, who got 15 points and 11 rebounds from Lauren Gustin and 11 points and six assists from Tegan Graham in the win.
Once again, BYU had to rally on the road — but the Cougars are getting quite good at that, too. Saint Mary's shot 62% from the field en route to a 23-16 first-quarter lead, holding Gonzales and Harding to a combined 3-of-10 for 8 points and three rebounds. The Cougars connected on just 7-of-19 field goals in the opening quarter, including 0-4 from three.
But Gonzales had 16 points and four assists before halftime, and Harding added 10 points as BYU held the Gaels to nine shots in second quarter to pull within two, 42-40 before using a 24-19 third to take control.
The Cougars used an 11-0 run late in the fourth quarter to pull away for good, forcing six turnovers over 4:21 to clinch the 15-point victory.
.@shayleegonzales steal... and bucket. She's up to 35 points! #WCChoops | @byuwbbpic.twitter.com/ivbSGcmsUZ— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) February 12, 2022
That's part of Harding's specialty, too. The fifth-year senior was once a defensive specialist, taking pleasure in other team's pain — and sometimes her own — as she took charges and just proved to be a pesky menace since her freshman year, when she came off the bench in all 30 games in 2017-18 and averaged 5.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. She's added more to her offensive game, obviously — Harding currently averages 16.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
But the fifth-year senior still takes pride in her defensive game, like when the Cougars boatraced Pepperdine 104-53 Thursday night. Those extra charges taken and defensive stops have an effect on her offensive play, too.
"I think a big reason why I am the player that I am today is because of my toughness and physicality. Taking charges always gets me excited," Harding said. "Defense used to be my role, and to see the frustration on opponents and coaches' faces, I love it. I think it brings energy to my teammates, too, to get defensive stops."
The preseason favorite Cougars (21-2, 11-1 WCC) are in first place in the conference with four games to go, and face a crucial homestand next week with their final two home against LMU and Gonzaga.
That bout Saturday with Gonzaga (2 p.m. MST, BYUtv) will likely decide the WCC regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. Harding will have an impact on that game — offensively or defensively — just as her toughness is inspiring a new generation of players.
Payton has been to almost all our home games and religiously brings a sign for more every game!! Such a loyal fan♥️ https://t.co/QMBWL5s3B8— Paisley Harding (@paisleynikelle) February 11, 2022
That includes her teammates.
"Paisley brings a lot to the team, and one of the main things is physicality," Judkins said. "She gets to the basket strong. She takes charges. She runs the floor, dives for loose balls. She does a lot of the dirty work that many top players don't do.
"She's just a tough kid, and that's how she's always been. That's one of the biggest assets she brings to this team."
But the Cougars have even bigger goals in mind. BYU is currently projected as a No. 5 seed by ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, but with the No. 9 mark in the NCAA's latest NET rankings, a top-16 overall seed in the tournament may still be in play.
With a top-16 seed, the Cougars would be eligible to host two rounds in the first-of-its-kind 68-team women's tournament. And while they still have a long way to go — and an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, including a university policy that prohibits playing and practicing on Sundays — the dream remained alive with the win over the Gaels.