Some of Arizona’s top players headline NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

BYU’s Shaylee Gonzales, a product of Gilbert’s Mesquite High School, is one of several Valley athletes competing in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament sees multiple Valley athletes competing at the highest level of collegiate competition. One of these athletes could go from the pinnacle of prep success to the height of collegiate immortality.

Perhaps the most recognizable name fans in the Valley will see on their screens this March is Shaylee Gonzales.

Gonzales made her name known at Mesquite High School in Gilbert. She put together as dominant of a junior season as one could. She averaged nearly 20 points per game, six assists, five rebounds and five steals per game. The Wildcats went 31-1 capturing the state title in a 21 point win over Sierra Linda. In that 2016-2017 season, they outscored their opponents by 1,448 points.

Her youngest brother, CohenJ followed in his older sister’s footsteps, winning a state title at Mesquite as a junior himself.

She committed to BYU shortly after winning the state title, even turning down an offer from top-ranked Stanford. Gonzales said it was the only place she wanted to go.

“They (Stanford) wanted to be at our house to offer her, and Shaylee turned them down, noting she wanted to go to BYU,” her brother Zaiah Gonzales said. “She just liked the coaches at BYU more.”

In her freshman campaign, BYU won the 2019 West Coast Conference Tournament, and made it to the NCAA Tournament. In summer training following that season, she tore her ACL, forcing her to miss the subsequent season.

When she came back, however, her presence was immediately felt. In the opening game of the 2020-2021 season against LSU, she scored 30 points and made six 3-pointers. She also scored her 1,000th point of her collegiate career against Arizona in their season-ending loss to the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzales was looking forward to the 2021-2022 season following a devastating loss to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament the previous season.

“If you’re saying your goals, it manifests itself,” Gonzales said. “We always chant ‘Final Four’ at the end of every practice and that’s our goal. We know we’re good and capable of a lot.”

BYU finished the 2021-2022 season 26-3 and received the six seed in the Wichita Region of the NCAA Tournament, the highest such seed in program history. They’ll open with 11th seed Villanova Saturday afternoon.

“It means that we’re getting better,” BYU Head Coach Jeff Judkins said. “We’re scheduling better, playing better teams and I think this is a good bracket for us.”

Gonzales is averaging 18.7 points per game and has a team-leading 67 steals on the season, leading the team on both ends of the floor.

With a veteran team led by Gonzales, Judkins is excited to see what she can do as a redshirt sophomore.

“She scored 32 points against Stanford her freshman year in the tournament so I think she’ll be ready to go,” Judkins said.

In four NCAA Tournament games in her career, Gonzales averages 18 points a game. She shines when the lights are brightest. She has one promise for every game her BYU squad plays.

“We’re gonna battle, we’re gonna fight,” Gonzales said.

That’s something she knows a lot about.

From the Valley to March

Just down the road in Tucson, Arizona’s Taylor Chavez hails from nearby Surprise. She was the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year in 2018 following her senior season. She averaged 23 points and eight rebounds per game, leading the Monsoon to a second straight state championship.

She just scored a season-high 18 points in Arizona’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinal victory over USC, carrying momentum into the big dance.

Also representing the Wildcats is Madison Conner. She began her career at Perry High School before transferring to Arizona Compass Prep. In her junior year at Perry, she helped lead the Pumas to a 21-8 record and the 2020 6A Arizona State semifinals. Following her senior season, she was rated as the No. 33 player and a four-star prospect by ProspectsNation.com.

Arizona’s opponent, UNLV, sees Alyssa Brown from Sahuaro High School in Tucson. She held quite the number of player of the year accolades. She was Player of the Year in Arizona by Gatorade, Arizona Republic, Arizona Central, MaxPrep and was the Arizona Female Athlete of the Year. She is Sahuaro’s single season all-time scorer with 932 points and is a member of the 2,000 points club.

Shifting back to the Pac-12 is Colorado’s Sophie Gerber. She averaged 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a senior at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale. Following her senior season, she was named 5A Region Player of the Year. The Buffaloes are the seven seed taking on tenth seed Creighton in the first round of the Greensboro Region.

Down in the Big 12, representing Cactus Shadows High School is Caitlin Bickle. She was a 2018 McDonald’s All-American nominee as a junior and missed her senior season due to an ACL injury. She’s having a solid senior campign at Baylor averaging 7.4 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game and shooting 46% from the field. Baylor opens up with #15 Hawaii in the Wichita region.

Finally, coming from Millennium High School in Goodyear is Alexandra Zelaya. She averaged 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game her senior year leading the Tigers to a state championship. The Tar Heels are the five seed in the Greensboro Region taking on #12 Stephen F. Austin.

Michael Baribault MY-kel BEar-re-bawlt
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Baribault expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Baribault, who has interned with Arizona PBS and provided play-by-play broadcasting for the Healdsburg Prune Packers, a collegiate summer baseball team, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

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