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Photo by Madeline Mortensen/BYU Photo
The BYU women's basketball team cheers Thursday night in Provo. The Cougars beat the Saint Mary's Gaels, 63-54.
Tonight I thought we played as good of defense as we’ve played in a long, long time. —BYU head coach Jeff Judkins

PROVO — Defense and two key runs in the second half played big in the BYU women's basketball team's 63-54 win over Saint Mary's on Thursday.

The win avenged an earlier 57-49 loss to the Gaels on the road back on December 30, while showing the strides the Cougars have made since. Only one loss, a tough 70-69 decision to San Diego, has been incurred since that loss to Saint Mary's, surrounded by six wins.

The win left BYU coach Jeff Judkins praising his team's progress in postgame while praising the team's collective defensive effort, which forced 22 Gael turnovers.

“Tonight I thought we played as good of defense as we’ve played in a long, long time,” Judkins said. “I think the wings especially did a great job.”

Center to the defensive effort was 6-foot-7 freshman Sara Hamson, who swatted away eight shots in the win, giving her 74 blocks on a year where she missed the first part due to playing with the BYU women's volleyball team.

"The team has just been so great helping me learn the plays and adjusting to my playing style, which is much different than most people," Hamson said. "We've been working really well together."

Also proving stellar defensively was senior Malia Nawahine, who contributed five steals while drawing tough defensive assignments, according to Judkins.

“Malia is a special kid because of what she can do defensively,” Judkins said.

Nawahine also dished out a game-high six assists and pulled down five rebounds.

Scoring often for the Cougars was Cassie Devashrayee and Brenna Chase, who scored 22 and 21 points, respectively, while doing their parts defensively.

The Cougars held a 32-25 lead at the break but quickly worked to extend that lead to 44-28 after a 12-3 run out of the halftime locker room.

"Going into halftime we talked about not letting up and just building," Devashrayee said, of the run which was built on defensive pressure and fastbreak opportunities. "We knew Saint Mary's was going to fight back and not give up, so we made a big effort to come out strong...Having that run kind of made Saint Mary's tired."

Chase contributed three steals of her own during the game, with Judkins happy with the progress she's made since the start of the season.

“Brenna is becoming a really good player,” Judkins said. “Tonight — her hustle and what she causes on the floor…She’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

Saint Mary's did make some runs and cut BYU's lead to 49-40 after the third quarter before the Cougars responded with an all but definitive 9-0 run to start the fourth. The run gave the Cougars a commanding 58-40 lead and pretty much put the game on ice.

With the win, BYU improves to 12-8 on the year and 7-2 in West Coast Conference play. The win also moves the Cougars one game up on the Gaels in the WCC standings. Next up is a road game at Pacific this Saturday.

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Twitter: @BrandonCGurney