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Latter-day Saint hoops star Shaylee Gonzales leads BYU into basketball’s ‘Big Dance’


For non-basketball followers, the month of March means the vernal equinox, unpredictable “In like a lion, out like a lamb” weather, St. Patrick’s Day and the ides of March.

But for American college sports fans, the third month of the year is all about the NCAA basketball tournament: aka March Madness; aka the “Big Dance.”

Count Latter-day Saint basketball stand-out Shaylee Gonzales among the many going mad for March. Brigham Young University’s star guard and her fellow Cougars have punched their “dance” tickets to the 2022 tournament, beginning with their first-round game on Saturday, March 19, vs. Villanova in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

BYU’s upcoming appearance at the NCAA tournament is just the latest highlight in what has been an unforgettable 2021-2022 season for Gonzales. The Gilbert, Arizona, native recently augmented her already impressive hoops resume by earning All-America honors and being named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year for the second year in a row after averaging over 18 points per game.

“We are always super excited for March Madness — and to be able to play in the NCAA tournament means so much to us,” the sophomore told the Church News.

Gonzales is just one of several Cougar players who have enjoyed an outstanding season. 

She was joined on the first-team all-conference team by teammates Paisley Harding and Lauren Gustin. Senior guard Tegan Graham received All-WCC honorable mention honors.

Meanwhile, veteran Cougar coach Jeff Judkins was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year after being named the West Coast Conference Coach of the Year. 

“A coach of the year award is an award for your whole program,” Judkins said in a BYU release. “I am really proud of the championship we’ve won, and to accomplish that your players and coaching staff have to come through. These awards are for everyone involved in BYU basketball.”

BYU Cougars women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins talks to his team during a time out as the BYU Cougars play the Portland Pilots in the 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2022. The veteran Latter-day Saint coach is nominated for national coach of the year honors.

BYU Cougars women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins talks to his team during a time out as the BYU Cougars play the Portland Pilots in the 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2022. The veteran Latter-day Saint coach is nominated for national coach of the year honors.

Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But the team’s ongoing success — which includes a West Coast Conference regular season title and a historic top-15 national ranking — can be attributed to more than just a collection of talented individuals.

“Our team is just so solid because of the chemistry that we have,” said Gonzales. “We’ve played with each other for a long time, and our seniors bring so much energy, toughness and leadership to our team.”

Just a sophomore, Gonzales brings a veteran’s perspective and appreciation for the success she and her fellow Cougars are enjoying this year. Following an outstanding freshman year, she suffered an off-season knee injury that forced her to miss BYU’s 2019-2020 campaign.

“That was my first major injury, so it was super hard mentally and physically,” she said. “I had to look for my teammates and coaches and family for support.”

She took that unexpected time away from the court to boost her basketball IQ. “I was able to learn so much from the sideline from my teammates and coaches — and I think that I’m a stronger person because of that. Now, every time I step out on the floor, I’m going to give it my all.”

Gonzales was just 15 when BYU offered her an athletic scholarship. The Church-sponsored school, she said, checked all the boxes she was hoping for as an athlete, a college student — and as a Latter-day Saint. 

A campus environment that would allow for spiritual growth, she explained, “was very important for me. … It’s an honor to wear the BYU jersey [knowing] you are representing the school and the Church.”

BYU Cougars guard Shaylee Gonzales (2) dribbles around Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Kayleigh Truong (11) in the 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament final game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. A Latter-day Saint, Gonzales earned All-America and conference player of the year honors in 2022.

BYU Cougars guard Shaylee Gonzales (2) dribbles around Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Kayleigh Truong (11) in the 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament final game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. A Latter-day Saint, Gonzales earned All-America and conference player of the year honors in 2022.

Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

She finds comfort knowing she can turn to her coaches for both basketball advice and, when needed, a priesthood blessing. She also appreciates that school’s global fan base.

“Wherever we travel, we have tons of Cougar fans going to our games.”

In her personal life, she’s also answering to a new Latter-day Saint title: Missionary Big Sister. Her younger brother, Zaiah, recently left for a Spanish-speaking mission to Georgia.

While Gonzales hopes to one day play professional basketball in the United States or overseas, her current focus is locked into BYU and the Cougars’ fast-approaching Big Dance. “Ever since the beginning of the season, we’ve been ’cheering’ for the Final Four. We want to get to the Final Four. We want to go deep in the tournament and make a statement.”

Gonzales added she and her teammates and coaches have also been inspired by the ongoing, historic success being enjoyed by several BYU women’s teams — including the Cougars’ 2021 NCAA finalist soccer team and several BYU national champion distance runners.

Now she’s grateful to be counted among BYU’s athletic success stories. “It’s been awesome to see our womens’ teams doing amazing and reaching their goals and winning championships,” she said.

Gonzales isn’t the only Latter-day Saint athlete competing in the 2022 women’s NCAA basketball tournament. Other members playing in the Big Dance include several of her BYU teammates and University of Utah guard Kennady McQueen, who earned Pac-12 honorable mention honors.

McQueen and the Utes will play Arkansas in the first round of the tournament on Friday, March 18.

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