A lot has changed for Paisley (Johnson) Harding the past couple years.
Most noticeably, her name.
But one thing has remained constant: her basketball excellence.
The NCAA women’s basketball tournament tips off Friday, and the Glacier Peak High School graduate is leading the charge for a BYU Cougars team in the midst of the greatest season in program history.
“Man, I think this is such a great season to go out on,” the fifth-year senior guard said via cell phone from Provo, Utah. “I feel very proud of us. You’ve been able to see our progression this year, just from the top all the way down. Our bench is really good. I’m happy with how the season has gone and excited for it to continue on.”
Harding is having her best season in what was already a storied BYU career. She’s averaging a career-high 17.0 points per game, ranking second on the team, while chipping in with 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.7 3s. She was named first-team All-West Coast Conference for the third consecutive year.
Harding’s efforts have ushered the Cougars to a season for the ages. BYU is 26-3 and at one point set a new school standard by reaching No. 15 in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The Cougars were given the No. 6 seed (also a school best) in the Wichita bracket for the NCAA Tournament and will face No. 11 Villanova in the first round at 10 a.m. Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“I’m really proud of myself,” Harding said about her season. “I’ve been able to get my field-goal percentage up and be more consistent there. I feel I’ve become a much smarter player, which is what you hope as a veteran. We’ve played a lot of Power Five conference teams, which has been great competition and helped build confidence for the end of the season. I’ve really worked on scoring more, that has been a bigger priority for me and my coaches. I feel like I’ve elevated that part of the game for sure.”
Another thing that’s changed for Harding is her relationship status. She and former BYU men’s basketball player Connor Harding were married in May of 2020, right at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, what was supposed to be a ceremony that hosted about 150 people was improvised into an intimate ceremony before 30 immediate family members in Sundance, Utah.
Connor Harding has since transferred to Utah Valley University where he’s a starter for the men’s basketball team. Utah Valley’s location in nearby Orem, Utah, means the couple is still able to live together, despite playing for different schools.
“Luckily my husband is a basketball player as well, so we both understand the busy schedules,” Harding answered when asked what it was like being a married NCAA athlete. “I’ve been able to go home to him and vice versa, where basketball wise we’re able to understand and be open to those conversations about things that happened in games and how to improve. On top of that, having a spouse who loves you is always the best. It’s been really nice.”
Harding’s married status played a small factor in why Harding chose to use her extra year of eligibility afforded by the pandemic, since her husband is a year behind in school. But more than that, Harding and BYU’s other super-seniors — fellow starters Shaylee Gonzales, Teegan Graham and Maria Albiero — returned because they knew they could accomplish something special, particularly considering the chemistry they built up playing with each other for so long. The Cougars announced themselves in November when they knocked off ranked teams Florida State and West Virginia to win the St. Pete Showcase in St. Petersburg, Florida, and BYU has rattled off winning streaks of eight, nine and 10 games.
For Harding, Gonzales and Albiero this is their third time qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, and they’re hoping to at least match what they accomplished in 2018-19 when the Cougars won their first-round game.
Yet BYU enters the tournament off a loss. The Cougars fell 71-59 to Gonzaga, a team they beat twice during the regular season, in the WCC Tournament championship game on March 8 in Las Vegas. In that game BYU, which essentially starts four guards and one forward, struggled against the bigger Bulldogs.
“That whole weekend I feel like we didn’t play like ourselves,” Harding said. “I don’t know, it just seemed like an off weekend. I think it was a good wake-up call for us. I think going into this tournament we have the fire to prove ourselves again.
“I’m excited to see how far we can get.”