In 'attacking the pressure' of predictions, BYU women cruise to 1st regular-season title since 2016

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PROVO — After a thunderous, emotional win over Gonzaga in the final home game of the regular season, BYU women's basketball had one more formality left: win the West Coast Conference outright championship.

The formality came to a head quickly in Stockton, California.

Shaylee Gonzales poured in 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals, and Paisley Harding added 14 points and four rebounds as No. 19 BYU rolled to a 82-52 win at Pacific at the Spanos Center to clinch the Cougars' first West Coast Conference regular-season title in seven years.

Lauren Gustin added 11 points and 13 rebounds — her league-high 14th double-double of the season — for BYU (25-2, 15-1 WCC), and Tegan Graham had 12 points and five assists for the Cougars.

It's the first outright regular-season conference title for BYU (25-2, 15-1 WCC) since the 2015-16 season, and the second overall since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011. BYU also won conference regular-season titles under head coach Jeff Judkins in 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2010-11 as members of the Mountain West.

Perhaps the hardest part for the Cougars, who ranked No. 8 in the NET with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points, was how they won that league title: from the front. Judkins knew his team had the chance to do something special.

"I learned a long time ago that you don't hide from pressure; you attack it," Judkins said. "When the season started, we had our goals and when we got picked first, I let them know they have a bullseye on their back.

"You've got to ways to go: either relish it and take advantage of it and win a championship, or fold. I know my team, and they're competitors; they took that challenge really hard."

The Cougars were predicted to win the WCC title a year after a bevy of seniors like Harding, Graham, Sara Hamson and Maria Albiero returned from an extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But BYU didn't just go out and win — the team rolled to the championship, sweeping runner-up Gonzaga and taking on all challengers (with the exception of one road game at Portland) to pummel teams by double digits, night in and night out.

Saturday was no exception. The only downside to the afternoon was having to clinch the title and raise the trophy in Pacific's gym, and not at home in front of a rising generation of Cougar fans in the Marriott Center.

BYU opened the game on a 16-2 run, led by 5 points from Harding and 4 points apiece from Gonzales and Gustin, to spoil the Tigers' senior day early.

Harding capped a 13-3 run, bridging the first two quarters with a driving layup that pushed the Cougars' lead to 29-9 less than two minutes into the second quarter. Gonzales had 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half, Harding added 9 points, two assists and two steals, and Tegan Graham supplied 9 points and five assists as BYU took an overwhelming 50-20 lead into the break.

Even Arielle Mackey-Williams, the freshman reserve from New Zealand had, 7 points on 3-of-3 shooting in the first half — just 2 points off her career high as the Tigers shot just 25% from the field in the first half.

Gonzales took any doubt away from the game early, not just offensively, but with a game-high four steals and three assists with just one turnover.

"The thing about Shaylee is she's so focused on wanting to be the best player," Judkins said of his star sophomore. "It's the hardest position on the team, but I think her and Paisley this year worked so well together.

"Shaylee does a lot of things; she scores a lot of points, but she does a lot of other things defensively, gets a lot of steals, deflections, rebounds, and she's an excellent passer."

It was a rout early and a rout often — one that shut down the West Coast Conference's website, which was streaming the game, just a few minutes after tipoff.

The preseason favorite Cougars had waited all year to clinch their first conference title in seven years, and they weren't waiting any longer, jumping out to a 71-32 lead after four quarters before Judkins put in the reserves to seal the win.

Were the Cougars perfect? Not hardly, and the loss to Portland will show that. But they'll also be the favorites to win the conference tournament in Las Vegas — and Judkins plans to attack that week in Sin City like his team did the regular season.

"Did we slip up? Yeah, one time. But I think when we lost that game (at Portland) and then won at Gonzaga, I think it set the tone for our team and what they could accomplish," Judkins said. "I've never been a coach to shy away from pressure, and my team is not that way, either.

"We're favored to win the tournament, too, and we're going to go out and fight there, too."

BYU will open the WCC Tournament semifinals Monday, March 7, tipping off at 1 p.m. MST at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

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