SALT LAKE CITY —
Utah shooting guard Iwalani Rodrigues is in the midst of a breakout season.
She has already scored 20 or more points five times this year and initiated her hot scoring streak by sinking 13 consecutive 3-pointers. And while the numbers that the redshirt sophomore is posting for the Utah women's basketball team are impressive, they pale in comparison to what she's doing in the classroom — especially considering she almost didn't make it to the U.
Rodrigues grew up playing basketball in Oahu, Hawaii, where she was the star of her high school squad. She led Roosevelt High to state championships her sophomore and junior seasons before transferring to Kalani High, where she won another state title as a senior.
Life on the court, she says, came easy. Life in the classroom, however, was a much different story.
"When I was growing up, everything was, 'Iwalani just needs to pass this class to play basketball,' " she said of her experience at her first school. "I always struggled in school because I felt that I needed to just barely pass to stay on the courts. I could do whatever I wanted as long as I was playing basketball and bringing fans and winning."
With the encouragement of her father, Darin, Rodrigues changed high schools for her senior year in search of a place where education was a higher priority.
"My dad felt as if I wouldn't make it to college if I stayed at that school, which I probably wouldn't have," she said. "(At the new school) they really pushed me to succeed in my work other than basketball. And I wanted to go to college so I (thought), 'student first, and then athlete.' "
It was at Kalani High that Rodrigues learned she was dyslexic.
"She went through high school with dyslexia and nobody knew until she finally got tested her senior year," said Utah interim head coach Anthony Levrets. "I think the Hawaiian school system made mistakes; dyslexia is a big deal. School is a struggle, but it's not because she's not intelligent. It's because she has gaps in learning due to the dyslexia."
Levrets and the Utah coaching staff found Rodrigues through her dominant comp team, Kalakaua Wahine. Rodrigues chose Utah based on the team's emphasis on education.
"I realized that it was more than basketball with the coaching staff here," she said. "They want to see their kids get a degree and succeed in life."
Although the player and the program were a match, Rodrigues was deemed academically ineligible.
"She didn't qualify academically with SAT and GPA," Levrets explained, "so we submitted a waiver to the NCAA asking for what the old Prop. 48 did for students like her."
Under Proposition 48, which was done away with in 1996, "students could go to a school, get a scholarship, sit out their freshman year and, if you did everything appropriately, then you would get your four years at the back end — basically a forced redshirt."
With approval from the NCAA, Rodrigues has been able to follow that path. She dedicated her first year at Utah to her schoolwork and, other than watching games from the stands, never saw the basketball team.
"This is probably the most structure she's had for the longest period of time, and she fought it for a little while," Levrets said, "but I think now it's becoming more comfortable for her."
With the support of the coaching staff and academic advisors, Rodrigues proved herself that first year, earning a 3.2 GPA and putting herself in a position to be a student-athlete again.
"She has a great support system here, and she has put the time and the effort in," Levrets continued. "She's competing at (school), and I think that was new for her. Finding out, 'I've got to compete at this, this is important, this is my life, this is my future.'
"The basketball court is easy for her, it's the part that wasn't easy all of her life that she's had to learn to compete at and take seriously every day."
Rodrigues is now in her second season playing for the Utes and, while it took her some time to get back in the flow of playing basketball after the year off, she is now excelling both on and off the court.
"She had a terrible shooting percentage from the 3-point line last year (14.7 percent)," Levrets said. "But in practice, you could come in and watch her shoot for half an hour and she might miss five shots. One night it just turned on and now all of those shots are going in. She's played really well; she's the player we knew she was going to be."
Rodrigues scored a career-high 31 points against Westminster earlier this season and has scored in double-digits every game since. Her 13-for-13 performance from behind the arc was one shy of tying an NCAA record, and her 48.4-percent shooting from 3-point range is currently a MWC-best and second in the NCAA.
More importantly, however, Rodrigues is moving closer to her goal of earning a degree in communications and finding a career in a sports-related field.
"She hasn't had everything handed to her, it hasn't just been easy, and I have a soft spot in my heart for those kinds of kids," Levrets said.
"The thing about her, though, is the minute you spend more than five minutes with her, you love her. The room lights up when she walks into it. You can't help but like her and want her to succeed. She's going to get a degree from here some day, and it's going to be a great thing."