Dick Harmon: BYU's Jeff Judkins readies Cougar women for regular-season finale
Matt Gade, Deseret News
PROVO — Jeff Judkins will stand on the sidelines at the Marriott Center Saturday and watch the WCC’s top player of the year candidate, BYU's Jennifer Hamson, take her final bow at home before tipoff with the University of San Diego.
This will be Judkins' 409th game as the BYU women's coach. Yes, the former Utah All-American and Rick Majerus assistant still has that Huck Finn easy-going smile and remains the same approachable, friendly personality we saw at Highland High some 40 years ago. Judkins, it seems, is unchanged with the passage of time, including his competitive spirit.
You see Judkins in his team.
In this final home game, guarding a 23-5 overall record and second place in the league standings behind No. 25 Gonzaga, the gig is still fun for Juddy. “Every team brings different challenges and that’s what makes it so enjoyable,” says Judkins, who is in his 13th season as BYU's women's coach.
“I have 18 girls with 18 different personalities. People ask me what it’s like and I tell them I’ve got 18 daughters and I’m trying to figure them all out. I’ve got a great staff that takes a lot of pressure off me and they work very hard.”
Judkins has his squad on a seven-game winning streak. An eighth victory Saturday would solidify a No. 2 seed in the WCC tournament, which begins March 6 in Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena.
“These guys have played hard all year long. As a coach you try and prepare your team to play hard at the end of the year so if you play for a championship or a tournament, they are playing their best basketball.”
Hamson leads the nation in blocked shots with 4.2 a game. Hamson also leads the league in scoring and rebounding (18.4, 11.5). Judkin's other senior, guard Kim Beeston, just earned player of the week honors after making nine 3-pointers.
Earlier this week, Judkins took a few minutes to pay tribute to his two senior leaders.
According to Judkins, Hamson isn’t just all about using her 6-foot-7 height to score and rebound — an obvious advantage over other competitors.
“She leads the country in blocked shots. She is a very good passer. She is a great athlete. She understands the game plan. She knows what plays are coming and anticipates it. She is the anchor of our defense because if they drive, she is there. She’s had her ups and downs this year.
“She broke her nose and lost some of her aggressiveness. She’s been in foul trouble. She’s had to deal with a lot of things. But the biggest thing about her is Jen is a gamer. She enjoys the moments. As a coach, I can really get on her. I can come in at halftime and say, ‘Jen, what are your doing? You need to be more active in the post,’ and she gets it. She works hard every day in practice and what a great example for young kids.”
Beeston has simply become a bastion of consistency, elevating her game, according to Judkins. The coach calls Beeston the smartest player he’s coached in a very long time in Provo.
“She makes defenses make decisions. Are you going to guard her or help on Lexi (Eaton), Jen or Morgan Bailey? When she hits a shot it opens things up for everybody else.
“The thing she has done this year is be more consistent. She had nine 3-pointers the other night but she’s shot well all year. Of course, her leadership and her defensive presence has been something you don’t see in the stats — that she’s running the team, making defensive plays. She’s been wonderful this year and has played the way she’s capable of playing."
With the San Diego game at hand, Judkins refuses to get ahead of himself by thinking about next week in Las Vegas. In their last meeting, San Diego defeated the Cougars.
But he knows the importance of that tournament. Two years ago BYU won it and earned an NCAA automatic berth. Last year the Cougars won one game, then lost to Gonzaga, the league’s top program for both men and women. A few years ago in Las Vegas while in the MWC, BYU had a 15-1 league record, but lost to Utah on a last-second basket and did not make the NCAA tournament.
“We don’t want to put this in the hands of the committee,” said Judkins. "We want to win it ourselves. We’re in a different situation than the ACC where a top team can lose in the conference tournament and still make the NCAAs.”
At 1 p.m. Saturday, Judkins and his team will take the last step toward Las Vegas.
As a wily veteran, he knows anything can happen.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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