BYU women’s basketball: Cougars are underdogs against Rutgers in NCAAs

For a couple players on BYU’s women’s basketball team, March Madness started a couple days early.

Senior guard Paisley Johnson-Harding and junior forward Kayla Belles-Lee are hoping for better results on Monday than their husbands’ team was able to deliver on Saturday night, as the BYU’s men’s team fell 73-62 to UCLA in Indianapolis.

The 11th-seeded Cougars’ women’s team meets No. 6 Rutgers at 10 a.m. MDT Monday morning at Strahan Arena in San Marcos, Texas. The first-round game pitting the second-place team from the West Coast Conference against the third-place team from the Big Ten will be televised by ESPNU.

“We are going to have our hands full,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins after having studied the Scarlet Knights, coached by the legendary Vivian Stringer, for almost a week since the bids were handed out last Monday night.

Johnson-Harding, who is married to junior guard Connor Harding, and Belles-Lee, who is married to junior forward Kolby Lee, watched Saturday night’s game from their hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The entire women’s tournament, which began on Sunday, will be played in and around San Antonio.

Strahan Arena is on the campus of Texas State University and about an hour’s drive north up Interstate-35 from San Antonio.

The Cougars practiced at the arena on Saturday. They won’t practice on Sunday, because the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a longstanding policy of not competing, or even practicing, on Sundays.

It is basically the same schedule the Cougars followed two weeks ago, when they only rested and held a worship service in their hotel in Las Vegas before opening the tournament on a Monday at Orleans Arena.

“We kinda got used to this in Vegas,” Judkins said. “We will be fine. I know my team is not out of balance right now. I feel like we are very comfortable with what is going on.”

Johnson-Harding and Belles-Lee are probably a bit sadder than their teammates after Saturday night’s disappointing performance from the BYU men, but Johnson-Harding said they have been able to compartmentalize the ups and downs of both teams.

Paisley Johnson married Harding last summer, after they became engaged just before both of BYU’s teams traveled to Las Vegas last March for the WCC Tournament. Their courtship was chronicled by the Deseret News last May.

Of course, the pandemic hit a few days after the WCC Tournament, and BYU’s men weren’t able to participate in March Madness. BYU’s women were upset in the WCC quarterfinals last year and wouldn’t have received an invitation.

“I was so excited to know they were going to the tournament and that Connor would be able to experience the NCAA atmosphere, especially after that chance was stripped from them last year. It is great,” Johnson-Harding said before Saturday’s game. “I am so excited for him and his team.”

She said usually when one spouse is on the road during the season, the other is playing at home, and vice versa, so this weekend has been different in that regard.

“We have been face-timing each other each day and seeing what is going on in our little tournament lives,” she said.

Johnson-Harding is one of BYU’s stars, with a 12.2 scoring average. Belles-Lee, who transferred from Michigan State, has been injured and has appeared in only seven games, posting a 1.4 scoring average.

“Next year will be better for her,” Judkins said.

BYU’s Kayla Belles-Lee takes a shot during practice in preparation for the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament game against Rutgers on Monday, March 22, 2021. Belles-Lee is married to BYU men’s basketball player Kolby Lee.
BYU photo

Belles and Lee were married last August, having gotten first acquainted online when Belles started considering a transfer to BYU and reached out to Lee via the internet to ask questions about playing basketball for the school.

They face-timed for months before finally meeting in person, and are now one of the tallest couples on campus, Belles standing 6-foot-2 and Lee at 6-9.

Judkins said it has been “a real positive” having a pair of players on his team married to a pair of players on the men’s team.

“For me, coaching Paisley, Connor has been a real plus,” Judkins said. “Because when Paisley hasn’t played as well as she wants to, Connor is out there shooting with her, doing things to try to help her, and vice versa, I know Paisley tries to help him.”

Harding scored five points and had a rebound in 21 minutes in the loss to UCLA. For the women to upset Rutgers Monday morning, Johnson-Harding knows she will have to come up big.

Rutgers has “done pretty well this season, and that is because of their pressure and their press that they do on teams,” she said. “We need to stay calm. Our game is very methodical. We are a motion running team. So as long as we stay calm and pass the ball through the press I really think we will be able to handle their pressure.”

The winner of the BYU-Rutgers game will see the Arizona-Stony Brook winner on Wednesday.