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Provo • There have been other outstanding BYU women's basketball teams in Jeff Judkins' 11-year tenure, but none has been as deep, experienced and talented as this current one, according to the man who recently became the winningest women's basketball coach in school history.
"We've got it rolling," Judkins acknowledged the day his team earned its first national ranking in five years, landing at No. 23 in The Associated Press Top 25. "This is probably the deepest team I've had, in every position. At every position we have a backup who can give the starter a good run for her money."
The Cougars are 8-1 and tied for first place with No. 20 Gonzaga in their first season in the West Coast Conference, are 20-3 overall, and have won nine straight.
"We have a really good connection with each other, and you don't see that in a lot of teams," said senior captain and center Kristen Riley, the team's leading rebounder (7.2 rpg.) and scorer (11.1 ppg.). "It is a good group of girls that are clicking really well and just flowing really well."
Judkins' first team, in 2001-02, went 24-9 and won two NCAA Tournament games, making it to the Sweet 16. His 2005-06 team went 26-6 and advanced to the big dance's second round. While noting that this team hasn't done anything yet, he says all the ingredients are there to make another postseason run. Last year's team made a lengthy run in the Women's National Invitation Tournament after getting upset by Utah in the MWC semifinals and getting snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
"We've played a hard schedule, and we have done well. So when you play a hard schedule and do well, you have an opportunity to get ranked," Judkins said. "That's a positive thing. It is great for our conference and great for the team. The team has worked hard. But a ranking doesn't mean as much as what you do at the end of the year."
The Cougars still employ the same full-court pressing, trapping style on defense that confounded a lot of MWC teams, but they aren't quite as efficient in that department as they were last year with guards Mindy Bonham and Jazmine Foreman, who have graduated.
But they are better defensively in the half-court, with the 6-foot-3 Riley and 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson, a sophomore, plugging up the middle.
"Jen Hamson has made a big difference inside. She is becoming a force in there," said Judkins of the two-sport star.
Freshman Lexi Eaton has made an immediate impact. The two-time high school MVP from Springville has a 10.6 scoring average, all while adjusting her offensive game to fit Judkins' style.
"She's been great," Judkins said. "Lexi is probably one of the best all-around players that I have coached in a long time. Her biggest thing was being able to fit in with everybody else. She was so used to doing everything herself [in high school]."
Judkins said senior Haley Steed "is an unbelievable point guard. She can shoot it, she can drive it, she can pass. She's athletic, she's smart, she's a leader. She's what a coach dreams about, to have a point guard like that."
Sophomore Kim Parker (10.9 ppg.) and senior Dani Peterson (7.1 ppg.) round out the starting five and can really run. Judkins said this is the best shooting, and best fast-breaking, team that he's had in a long time.
Guards Stephanie Vermunt, Xojian Harry, Ashley Garfield and Stephanie Rovetti contribute off the bench, along with forwards Morgan Bailey and Alexis Kaufusi.
Like BYU's men's team, the Cougars have yet to face Gonzaga. Their only league loss was a 54-48 setback at Saint Mary's. Seven of their first 10 league games are on the road.
"Our name is out there, with the ranking and all," Judkins said. "It's a great honor, but we want to win a conference championship. We want to go to the NCAA Tournament and do well. Then we can say we're a great team."
BYU women's basketball
• The Cougars are 20-3 overall and tied for first place in the WCC with an 8-1 league record.
• The Cougs are No. 23 in the AP poll, their first national ranking since 2006
• They are on a nine-game winning streak
• They are led in scoring by senior center Kristin Riley (11.1 ppg.)
• Jeff Judkins is the winningest women's coach in school history with 225 career victories.