Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars guard Lexi Eaton (21) and Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Haiden Palmer (3) scramble for the ball during the West Coast Conference Championship game in Las Vegas Tuesday, March 11, 2014. BYU lost 71-57.
LOS ANGELES — For a dedicated athlete, tearing a knee ligament can devastate the spirit, let alone the body or the career. But nearly 16 months after suffering such an injury, BYU's Lexi Eaton emerged as a more potent force.
The redshirt sophomore from Mapleton will play a pivotal role as the Cougars seek to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA women's basketball tournament for the first time in 14 years. To get there, 12th-seeded BYU must beat fourth-seeded Nebraska in tonight's second-round game at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
Eaton demonstrated her value in Saturday night's 72-57 upset of fifth-seeded North Carolina State in the first round. The 5-foot-10 guard amassed 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot while playing 37 minutes.
"I would say that I'm a lot better than I was before, just because I feel like I've become more of a student of the game," Eaton said. "I know when to take advantage of my athleticism and when to rely more on my smarts."
The Cougars had to rely on Eaton in the first half Saturday night. With the Wolfpack silencing Jennifer Hamson, BYU's leading scorer, Eaton responded with 17 points.
"She is someone who can beat someone off the dribble, and we kind of missed that last year," Hamson said. "Now that we have that again, she completes us."
Eaton made her biggest impact in the final four minutes of the first half. The former Springville High School standout contributed five points, a rebound and an assist to a 9-0 spree that turned a 25-24 deficit into a 33-25 lead with 18.5 seconds before halftime.
"Lexi demands respect when she's one-on-one," BYU guard Kim Beeston said. "She just spreads everything out. Because of that, people like myself get open shots."
Eaton began her collegiate career impressively. As a freshman in 2011-12, Eaton started all 33 games, finished as the Cougars' second-leading scorer (10.5 points), made the West Coast Conference's All-Freshman team and shared the WCC's award as the newcomer of the year.
But in December 2012, Eaton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee while driving for a lay-in against Utah State. After eight games, her sophomore season was over.
As she underwent 10 months of rehabilitation after surgery, Eaton found the ensuing challenges to her psyche most difficult.
"Emotionally, it's hard to stay upbeat throughout the whole rehab process," Eaton said. "Especially the first few months, when you can't even run, you don't really feel like an athlete at all."
Following rehabilitation came the grind of recovering lost skills.
"Mentally, you have to put in a lot of work to feel comfortable again in the style of player you are," Eaton said. "Being a driver and a slasher to the basket, you have to trust your body completely. I put in a lot of work playing one-on-one, doing a lot of skill work and just gradually working up to the high level that we play at during the season."
Eaton remained connected to her teammates by traveling with them to games and sitting on the bench. Though she could not compete, Eaton discovered a deeper level of basketball knowledge.
"I learned just a lot more about the game," Eaton said. "I learned a lot sitting by my coaches on the bench last year and really getting a better feel for the game."
"She really took advantage to watch, study and listen to what was being said — and realized how to relay that into the game," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "She can go on the fly and really adjust. I think that's where she made her biggest improvement."
As she was absorbing knowledge, Eaton made a list of aspects of her game she needed to improve.
"It was a long list," Eaton said with a wide smile and a laugh.
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When she returned this season, Eaton made the All-WCC first team after scoring 16.9 points per game, shooting 83.3 percent from the free-throw line and making 28 steals in 32 games.
"It has been incredible," Hamson said of Eaton's impact. "She has come back smarter and she has really helped us."
Eaton also came back with a renewed sense of joy.
"The year off made a huge difference for me," Eaton said. "I think it's starting to show right now. I really missed the big games. It has just been great to enjoy it with my team this time around instead of on the bench with my hands behind my back."