When the BYU women’s basketball team needed a way to slow Pepperdine star Yasmine Robinson-Bacote in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, Cougars coach Jeff Judkins turned to Paisley Johnson to shut Robinson-Bacote down.
When Gonzaga was threatening to mount a comeback against the Cougars in the tournament championship game, Judkins called Johnson’s number on a set play in the half-court offense to stem the tide.
And when BYU claimed the West Coast Conference tournament championship, it was Johnson who was deemed to have played the biggest part.
Johnson was named the Most Outstanding Player of the WCC tournament last week, helping the Cougars earn an NCAA tournament berth, and that was just the latest highlight in what’s been a breakout campaign for the Glacier Peak High School graduate.
Johnson, a 5-foot-9 sophomore guard, averaged 19.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and was 6-for-7 from 3-point range in BYU’s two tournament games in Las Vegas as the second-seeded Cougars defeated No. 3 Pepperdine 68-63 in the semifinals last Monday, then upset No. 1 Gonzaga 82-68 in the championship game last Tuesday.
“I was super honored,” Johnson said about being named the Most Outstanding Player. “It’s a title that not a lot of sophomores get. So being able to do that my sophomore year and to be able to perform in tournament games was super. I’m very proud of myself.
“I felt I played within myself and focused more on my shots and not so much on trying to get a shot up,” Johnson added about her performance in the tournament. “I had a lot of confidence, I felt very good all weekend. In shootaround I was hitting all my shots, so I felt very confident going into those games.”
Said Judkins: “She’s the life of the party, and that’s how she plays. She plays with her heart and her soul and she puts it all out there. That’s the kind of kid she is, and it’s a coach’s dream to have a player like that.”
Against Pepperdine, while Johnson posted strong offensive numbers with a team-high 20 points, it was her defense that was the difference maker. BYU trailed 38-32 at halftime, and Robinson-Bacote was doing whatever she wanted with 18 points. Judkins switched Johnson onto Robinson-Bacote in the second half and Johnson held Robinson-Bacote to a single free throw.
“You just have to be an annoying little gnat, be up in her space the whole time,” Johnson said. “She didn’t like it and she stopped playing, she stopped trying to get the ball.”
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And Johnson even took umbrage at the lone point Robinson-Bacote scored.
“This is me just being a little salty about it, but I got called for a foul when I totally blocked her shot,” Johnson said. “I got all ball, I didn’t even touch her body.”
Said Judkins: “I had to be careful with (Johnson) because I didn’t want her to get in foul trouble early, and she did a really good job in the first half setting the tone with what we wanted to do offensively. In the second half she didn’t have any fouls, so I decided to put her on their best player. Paisley is the best defensive player on my team, she can guard a lot of different positions, and that was the wild card I had, to have Paisley come in and do that.”
Then in the championship game against Gonzaga last Tuesday, the Cougars led by as many as 16 in the third quarter. When the Bulldogs, who were down two starters because of injury, pulled within eight late in the third, Judkins called a play for Johnson, and she drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to end Gonzaga’s run.
“The reason why you want a Kevin Durant, a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant is so that when the other team makes a run, you can call their number and get a basket,” Judkins said. “Paisley did that all year, and against Gonzaga it was the same thing. They cut the lead to eight, we ran a high-pick play for Paisley, she read it perfectly, took a 3 and hit it. That was nothing new, she’s done it all season. She’s a money player.”
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Indeed, it’s been a breakthrough season for Johnson. Last season she was a reserve, averaging 5.6 points per game in a limited role. But this season she moved into the starting lineup and has posted 14.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 3-pointers and 1.4 steals per game. She’s the second-leading scorer on a BYU team that’s 25-6, and she was named second-team All-WCC.
“Last year I wanted to redshirt her because I thought she wasn’t going to get enough minutes, and she was fine with that,” Judkins said. “After our first exhibition game I knew I couldn’t afford to not play her that year. She came off the bench and provided a spark. This year I thought she’d score maybe eight or nine points a game and be a really good defender. But she’s shot the ball a lot better than I thought she would from the perimeter, and there’s really not a player who can guard her one-on-one off the dribble because she’s so quick and explosive. I think she should have been first-team all-conference.”
Johnson and the Cougars were handed the No. 7 seed in the Chicago Region during Monday’s bracket unveiling. The Cougars face No. 10 Auburn in the first round at 12:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday in Stanford, California.
And Johnson believes BYU can be a factor.
“I think we’re going to make some noise,” Johnson said. “We’re going to surprise some people out there. People don’t know what to expect from our team, and I’m excited to show the nation what BYU basketball is all about.”
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