SALT LAKE CITY — Malia Nawahine had never really endured a situation like the one she found herself struggling through last season as a freshman.
“It was really hard,” the Utah guard said of the Utes' struggle to win. “At Springville, we didn’t really lose. Basketball just didn’t seem that fun.”
Nawahine was heavily recruited after leading Springville to the 2013 4A state title and an undefeated 25-0 season. Her success earned her Gatorade Player of the Year and Ms. Basketball honors, and she looked to take her skills and leadership to Utah, a school coming off of an 8-10 conference record and a 23-14 overall season.
She said she chose Utah because she’d always wanted to play in the Pac-12. She was a noticeable exception in local recruiting as most of Utah's top women chose BYU. In fact, Nawahine remains the only local player on the roster, something Utah head coach Lynne Roberts vows to change. Nawahine just smiles when asked about how most of Utah's top players, including her former teammates, chose the Cougars while she chose the school where her grandfather, Bill Cravens, played football from 1960-62.
“It’s such a big conference,” she said. “And it’s fun to play in.” That excitement was tempered by reality in her freshman season when the Utes struggled mightily. They finished 12-19 overall and 4-14 in conference.
Things went from bad to worse when she, and several other key players, went down with injuries and the team limped to a 3-15 conference finish and a 9-21 overall performance. Nawahine missed most of the season (27 games) and opted to take her redshirt to keep an additional year of eligibility.
She said some days it felt like the team was mired in mediocrity for the foreseeable future. But that’s when her teammates and family would encourage her to continue doing the only productive thing she could in that situation — work hard.
“We all worked together through it,” she said. “Especially Wendy (Anae), my cousin. We’re all really, really close, and we just kept working together.” While it seemed most of the world was content to write the women’s program off as a casualty of moving to a Power 5 conference, the players kept a different vision in front of them every day, win or lose.
“We knew we were good,” she said with a shrug. “Everyone was just like ‘If we work hard, eventually we’ll get those wins.’ So it wasn’t like we sucked and it was never going anywhere. We always knew we were good enough to be in this conference.”
It’s not like Nawahine had never had to deal with challenges. The third of nine children, she moved from her California home to Springville, Utah, just before her junior year of high school. Basketball and family, however, have always been her constants.
And when she reflects on how bleak some of the moments of her first two years at Utah were, she said it was her family and her teammates who helped her persevere.
“My family just helped me a lot with sticking things out and working hard,” Nawahine said. “And I think we just got lucky with getting a new coach.” She and her teammates said it’s not just new head coach Roberts who has changed this season, it’s everything from strength and conditioning to expectations for the team.
“The attitude of our program just kind of changed,” she said. “You can tell in practices that everyone is having a lot more fun.”
Nawahine’s looking forward to taking on the team’s fourth ranked opponent of the season in three weeks when Oregon State visits the Huntsman Center on Friday night. Her best game of this season came in Utah’s upset of then-No. 21 Cal when she scored 20 points, earned five assists and grabbed four rebounds.
These are the kinds of games she hoped to play in when she committed to Utah as a high school senior.
Competitive by nature, she said she has to work to see the positives in each situation.
“I’m not really negative, but I do have to work at it,” she said. “We (players) did a pretty good job with each other, everyone on the team. Things were tough.”
Not one to shy away from hard work, Nawahine said this season is actually more challenging but also more enjoyable.
"We work harder for sure this year," she said. "But if everyone works hard together, it's fun. It's fun because we're working toward the same goal."
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