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Provo • Knowing he would have three returning starters who helped BYU's women's basketball team win the West Coast Conference Championship last spring, coach Jeff Judkins assembled one of the most ambitious nonconference schedules in his 14 years at the helm.
"So I am either going to kick myself in the fanny, or I am going to say, 'Hey, it was pretty good,' " Judkins said.
When he put together the schedule that includes only three nonconferene home games, Judkins also knew he had landed one of the top junior college transfers in the country, 6-foot-2 forward Kalani Purcell of Hamilton, New Zealand by way of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
"It looks great now," Judkins said. "But as a coach, you gotta get wins, you gotta get momentum. Our RPI should be where it needs to be."
The Cougars, who made it to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 two years ago and the first round last year, will open the season Friday at 3 p.m. against Utah Valley University in the Marriott Center.
Judkins and star guard Lexi Eaton Rydalch (she married Trevor Rydalch, son of former Utes guard Mark Rydalch, in July) said expectations are high this season, although the Cougars must replace one of the better inside players in school history, Morgan Bailey.
"Expectations are big for this team," said Rydalch, who led the WCC in scoring last year with a 20.5 average. "We really are looking to get to the regular-season conference title, and the conference tournament title, and go to the NCAA [Tournament] for sure."
BYU was picked to finish second behind Gonzaga in the WCC Preseason Poll as voted by the league's 10 coaches. Like Rydalch, point guard Kylie Maeda was selected to the preseason all-conference team. The other returner is guard Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher, who married BYU football player Adam Pulsipher over the summer.
"The strength of our team is our guard line, with all those returning starters," Judkins said. "I think to win, you have to have good guards, and we have that."
Purcell will be expected to pick up the slack in Bailey's absence inside.
"Kalani is not the inside presence that Morgan was, but she can score in so many different ways," Judkins said. "That will help us."
The coach is excited about his other newcomers as well, including Fremont High guard Shelbee Molen, Mountain Crest center MaCayla Hanks and 6-2 forward Jasmine Moody of Hawaii's Radford High. Kristine Fuller Nielson, the third player to get married in the offseason, returns with Cassie Broadhead and Micaelee Orton. Sophomore Alohi Robins-Hardy will join the squad when the volleyball season concludes.
Cougars at a glance
Key additions • F Kalani Purcell (Jr., 6-2), F Amanda Wayment (Fr., 6-1), G Shelbee Molen (Fr., 5-10), C MaCayla Hanks (Fr., 6-4), F Jazmine Moody (Fr., 6-2)
Key losses • Morgan Bailey, Ashley Garfield, Xojian Harry
Projected starters • G Lexi Eaton Rydalch (Sr., 5-1) , G Kylie Maeda (Sr, 5-5) , G Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher (Jr., 5-8), F Kalani Purcell (Jr., 6-2), F Micaelee Orton (Jr., 6-2)
Bottom line • The Cougars are chasing Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, but should have enough firepower to contend for second place if Purcell is as good as advertised.