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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU Cougars center Sara Hamson (22) shoots over San Francisco Dons forward Julia Nielacna (32) in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. BYU won 82-59.

PROVO — Much like her older sister, Jen Hamson, was throughout her career, Sara Hamson can prove to be an absolute game-changer when healthy and playing at a high level, much to the BYU women's basketball team's benefit. As the Cougars begin West Coast Conference play Monday taking on Pepperdine (3 p.m. MDT, BYUtv), Hamson will prove pivotal as the team hopes to qualify for the NCAA tournament, either by winning the tournament outright or by gaining an at-large bid.

"I think if we win our semifinal game and then advance to the final that we're in for sure," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. "We've played a good schedule and we've done what we've needed. We've lost a couple of games we shouldn't have, but we've also won some that have been very good for us."

The Cougars enter the WCC tournament as the No. 2 seed, which means they enter play Monday in the semifinal round, along with No. 1 seed Gonzaga. Two of the biggest wins this season have come against the Bulldogs, with Judkins' team winning out 70-68 at home back on Jan. 17 and then again in Spokane, winning 66-64 back on Feb. 16.

" I think if we win our semifinal game and then advance to the final that we're in for sure. "
BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins on NCAA tournament chances

While not playing as big of an impact in the first win over Gonzaga, Hamson proved critical in the second, pulling down nine rebounds and blocking three shots over her 25 minutes of play. Since then the 6-foot-7 sophomore has steadily improved her play and impact on the game, as could well be expected given her extraordinary combination of size and athleticism.

It's become somewhat normal for Judkins to start postgame comments regarding Hamson's impact and how beneficial it has been for the growth of his team over the past month or so.

"The reason we did so well in conference, in my opinion, is because of Sara, because she's just gotten better," Judkins said. "In the last month Sara — when she's been starting — she's just been a totally different player."

So why the late impact? Well, it all has to do with injury.

In prepping for the volleyball season last August, Hamson went down with a torn meniscus that required immediate surgery, forcing her to miss the entire volleyball season. She's slowly, but assuredly worked her way back into basketball shape since, and appears to be playing at her top level at a great time of the year to be doing as much.

"I feel great out there now," Hamson said. "It's been interesting getting back and not easy. It's been frustrating in a lot of ways, but it's been a gradual process and my team has had great confidence in me to be able to get back to playing like myself. I love my team."

Hamson's abilities complement BYU's prolific guard line quite well, with standouts like Brenna Chase, Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Johnson keeping pressure off Hamson and vice versa.

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"It opens up everything so much," Hamson said. "In high school teams would just pack it in against me, but my teammates are so good on the outside that teams can't do that anymore. So that's really nice, and my hope is now to help take some defensive pressure off of them."

As for the tournament, Hamson is excited about the team's potential, with the belief her team is playing at its best level so far this season entering Monday's game.

"It's the best time of the year and I love this tournament," she said. "We feel confidence, even though we know it will be a challenge. We just can't wait to get going and to see how far we can go."