Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars forward Morgan Bailey (41), Brigham Young Cougars center Jennifer Hamson (5) and Brigham Young Cougars guard Kylie Maeda (15) cheer at the end of the game during the West Coast Conference Championships in Las Vegas Monday, March 10, 2014. BYU won 77-64 and advance to the finals.

PROVO — BYU star center Jennifer Hamson decided to forgo playing on the women’s volleyball team this past year to focus solely on basketball. The reasoning behind the decision was to avoid being mentally and physically worn down at the end of the basketball season.

Mission accomplished.

As the Cougars prepare to square off against North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, BYU players, coaches and Hamson herself rave about how well she’s playing — noting a considerable difference between this year‘s performance and her performance in prior seasons.

“It’s completely different. I think this year has been huge for her to completely focus on basketball,” said senior guard Kim Beeston. “I think her timing is a lot better. Her (conditioning) is a lot better. And, as you can see from watching our games, she’s kind of our go-to girl.”

The 6-foot-7 Hamson leads the team in scoring (18.3 ppg), rebounding (11.2) and blocked shots (128.) She’s also managed to average just more than 30 effective minutes per game due to her better conditioning and mental focus.

“She’s been a totally different player,” said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. “That’s what practice, that’s what timing, and that’s what focusing — all the things you do in one sport — really does. She really came into her own this year — both offensively and defensively.”

Aside from Hamson’s improved play on the court, Judkins has noticed strides made by the athlete in other aspects.

“She’s really come out of her shell and become a leader,” Judkins said. “Part of it’s because she’s a senior, but the other part of it is she was just around a lot more with the workouts ... just doing more with the team. I think that’s really helped her and it’s really helped the team.”

EATON HUNGRY FOR ANOTHER GAME: The Cougars ended the season very strong — winning 10 straight before losing 71-57 to Gonzaga in the final of the West Coast Conference tournament. As a result, all the players are excited to get back on the hardwood and get back to their winning ways.

But perhaps no one more than sophomore guard Lexi Eaton.

Eaton struggled mightily with her shot against Gonzaga — putting together an uncharacteristic 2-for-18 performance from the field for 15 points while committing eight turnovers.

“You can’t have your best player go 2 for 18,” Judkins said. “Lexi is too good of a player and it’s the worst game she’s played offensively in probably two months. She knows it, she accepted it, and she got herself back into the gym and started shooting. That’s the kind of player Lexi is.”

Judkins stated strongly that his star guard will recover and put together a strong performance this Saturday against the Wolfpack.

“You watch. She’ll bounce back. It’s that important to her,” Judkins said. “She’s not here just for the fun. She’s here to perform and do her best.”

As for Eaton herself, she’s watched the film and worked to put the Gonzaga game completely behind her while noting what she needs to do better.

“I feel like I’ve learned that I didn’t handle my emotions very well (against Gonzaga),” Eaton said. “That’s a big key in big games. I think it really shows with experienced teams is they know how to handle their emotions on the big stage and I don’t think we did that very well and I didn’t either. So I’ve just been working on that personally and hopefully apply it in the next game.”


Twitter: @BrandonCGurney