PROVO — The BYU women’s basketball team got a taste of the NCAA tournament last season and is eager to return. Led by an experienced point guard and some promising frontcourt players, the Cougars looked primed to repeat and even build on last year’s finish.

BYU was recently picked to finish first in the West Coast Conference — the first time in five years a team other than Gonzaga received the most votes.

“I don’t take too much truth into being picked first, but it’s also an honor because it shows that people respect your program,” said coach Jeff Judkins. “I have some really good players coming back off of a very good team last season and I guess other people saw that and it’s probably why we were picked to finish first.”

Senior point guard Haley Steed, who will likely break the all-time assists record for the team this season, is the unquestioned leader.

“Your point guard is sort of the quarterback of the basketball team, so it’s very nice having my most experienced player and best leader playing that position,” said Judkins. “I’m the only one that has been here at BYU longer than she has and she’s done so much for this team and for the program. She’s hard on the girls, but they all look up to her and she’s like another coach for me.”

Steed is joined by returning standouts such as 6-foot-7 junior Jennifer Hamson and 5-foot-10 sophomore Lexi Eaton. Both players finished second and third on the team in scoring last season, respectively.

“Jen Hamson is obviously a great athlete — probably the best athlete in the school and she was big for us last year and she’ll be big for us again this year,” Judkins said. “Lexi (Eaton) was the newcomer of the year in our conference and she’s obviously a very good player with a lot of potential.”

Hamson will be out with injury early in the year, but is expected to return near the end of November. Other players will be asked to step up for the team’s best and most experienced post-players such as 6-foot-2 senior Keilani Unga and 6-foot-2 sophomore Morgan Bailey.

“Keilani is Harvey Unga’s wife and she came back to finish her degree and I asked her to come back and play and she worked extremely hard to get back into shape and I think she’s playing her best basketball,” Judkins said. “Keilani started for me for three years, so she’s a very big addition for us this year. Morgan Bailey is Thurl Bailey’s niece and she plays a lot like he did when he played for the (Utah) Jazz, so we’re hoping she becomes a really good player for us.”

The 2012-2013 roster is relatively young with six sophomores and six freshmen, but Judkins likes the overall experience, potential and depth of his players.

“A lot of our sophomores were able to play last year and will be asked to play bigger roles for us this year,” Judkins said. “And a lot of our freshmen have really impressed me so far with how they work and I think a lot of them could help us this year, but we’ll obviously have to redshirt some of them. I like my team this year and believe that if we work hard and come together that we‘ll be able to get back to the (NCAA) tournament again and we should have a very good season.”

The Lady Cougars begin the regular season this Friday at the Marriott Center against Weber State. The game will tip off at 3 p.m.


Twitter: @BrandonCGurney