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Madeline Mortensen, Courtesy BYU photo
BYU's Paisley Johnson drives to the basket during the Cougars' 70-66 win over San Francisco on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, at the Marriott Center.

PROVO — Picked to finish third in the West Coast Conference in the media preseason poll, the BYU women's basketball team (8-3) appears poised to beat those expectations after a relatively successful preseason.

WCC Conference play begins this weekend for the Cougars with games at Santa Clara (7-4) on Saturday and then another at San Francisco (4-7) the following Monday. Led by the play of freshman Shaylee Gonzales, Jeff Judkins' team has largely beaten most prognostications entering conference play in securing eight wins in non-conference play.

"I like how we've been playing," Judkins said. "We have room to improve, sure, but I like how this team has come together, and Shaylee has really been good for us, obviously."

Gonzales has paced the scoring for the Cougars on the early season, averaging 17.2 points per game, fitting in well with guards Paisley Johnson and Brenna Chase, who average 12.6 and 12.3 points per game, respectively.

"Shaylee has fit in very well, working together with Brenna and Paisley to give us a guard line that has been better than any team that we've played, in my opinion," Judkins said. "And we're still young, with Shaylee being just a freshman, Paisley a sophomore and Brenna a junior."

Chase largely runs the point for the Cougars with Johnson playing off in most instances while Gonzales does just about everything, showing a level of play far beyond her years.

" I like how we've been playing. We have room to improve, sure, but I like how this team has come together. "
BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins

"They really have all three learned to work well together, and I believe that's just going to get better," Judkins said. "So yeah, we're very happy with what is developing there, and that's definitely the strength of our team."

Another strength looks to be inside where 6-foot-7 sophomore Sara Hamson is rounding into form after coming off a knee injury that kept her from playing volleyball this past year. Hamson has proven a real force in the middle, giving opponents all sorts of trouble with her height and extraordinary athleticism.

Also helping the Cougars' cause are 6-3 forward Shalae Salmon and 6-2 Jasmine Moody, who average 7.4 and 5.4 points, respectively.

The toughest team in the conference in the early going appears to be Gonzaga (11-1), picked to finish No. 1 in conference in the preseason. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 20 in the nation and took their only loss to No. 1 Notre Dame on Nov. 22. The Cougars will first meet Gonzaga at the Marriott Center on Jan. 17.

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Gonzaga is far from the only tough challenge in conference, however, as nine of the conference's 10 teams come into conference play with winning records on the year. Saint Mary's (7-4), picked to finish No. 2 in the conference, has been tested early and often so far this year, having played two games already against top 10 competition (Oregon and Oregon State) and one against No. 13 Cal. Although taking losses in all three games, the Gaels should prove one of the better WCC teams come season's end.

"We have a tough conference, but our goal is to win conference and make the NCAA Tournament, and I think we're doing well so far to accomplish that," Gonzales said. "I'm excited about what we've been able to do so far, and hopefully we can keep it going when conference play starts."

The Cougars' game at Santa Clara begins at 2 p.m. PST and will be streamed live on TheW.tv, as will the game at San Francisco on Dec. 31, which tips off at 3 p.m. PST.