Gabe Mayberry, BYU Photo
BYU's bench celebrates during the Cougras' victory over 13th-ranked Gonzaga in the Marriott Center in Provo on Jan. 17, 2019.

STANFORD, Calif. — The No. 7-seeded BYU women's basketball team (25-6) begins NCAA Tournament play Saturday, taking on No. 10 seed Auburn (22-9) at 1:30 p.m. MDT on ESPN2.

It's a spot not many thought the Cougars would wind up in before the season started, nor midway through West Coast Conference play when a three-game losing streak could have brought them back to earth. That three-game speed bump started with losses on the road to Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount and continued with a tough 78-75 home loss to Saint Mary's.

Shortly after the losing streak, sophomore guard Paisley Johnson maintained a high level of confidence, consistently stating that the goal of her team remained making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

And the Cougars haven't lost since.

They quickly turned things around with two straight wins, but really made a statement in upsetting WCC favorite Gonzaga on the road, 66-64, back on Feb. 16, with Johnson and two of her most prominent teammates taking charge.

"I remember pulling all three of them aside and I just said, 'The team counts on you three,'" BYU coach Jeff Judkins said of a pointed discussion that occurred after the three-game skid. "You can't have bad nights. You may not score every night, but you got to be ready to play every night. You set the tone."

The three players — Johnson, Brenna Chase and Shaylee Gonzales — have provided a lift for the Cougars throughout the season. All three took Judkins' charge to heart and haven't looked back.

But there are others who also stepped up.

Perhaps most significant has been the play of 6-foot-7 sophomore Sara Hamson, who has become better and better the more she's recovered from offseason surgery. Hamson has begun to resemble the superior play of her older sister, Jen Hamson, who led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 back in 2014.

Judkins learned back in 2014 what it takes to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, determining that better frontcourt depth was essential for any team hoping to make a run at the title.

“We didn’t have depth inside, so when we went up against UConn, we just couldn’t keep up,” Judkins said. “But this year I have them. I have five or six bodies I could throw in there and hopefully be able to guard the inside presence from wherever.”

The frontcourt, led by Hamson, also includes 6-foot-2 forward Jasmine Moody and 6-3 forward Shalae Salmon, both of whom have provided big minutes when Hamson is on the bench.

“The NCAA Tournament is the place where you have to have inside presence and you have to have bodies to play on the inside,” Judkins said. “That’s one thing we have, is depth on the inside position.”

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The hope is that with better inside depth, coupled with a guardline that Judkins considers the best he's coached for some time, the Cougars can make a deep run in the tournament.

"I felt from the beginning that we were going to be an elite team," Johnson said. "... I knew from the start that we'd just be rolling and I have the confidence in us when maybe other people didn't."

Her teammates apparently feel the same.

"I don't see why we can't go as far as we want to in this tournament if we play the game we know how to play," added Chase.