SALT LAKE CITY — Erika Bean might be the only recruiting battle Lynne Roberts is glad she lost.
“When I was at Pacific, we had home visits, we had her on our campus, I wanted her bad at UOP,” Roberts said of Utah’s senior point guard. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
In a fortuitous twist of fate for both of them, Bean ended up choosing the program Roberts would take over a year later. The Sacramento native is the only senior on this year’s roster who’s played all four years with Roberts, and her skills, her leadership and her personality are integral in why Utah is 16-1 and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade. Bean has started all 17 games and is averaging 6.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
“She’s had three solid seasons, and every year she’s gotten a little bit better,” Roberts said. “But this year, it’s really fun to see her coming around, the confidence that she’s playing with. I don’t know if it’s that she’s a senior, but she’s just really come into her own, and it’s fun to see.”
The 5-foot-7 point guard first felt the lure of the court when she was watching a group of men play at her church in California.
“All the girls were like the cheerleaders,” she said smiling slightly. “I really wanted to go get in (the game), but I was too young. … But I was really persistent about wanting to play, and eventually my parents put me into a little rec league.”
She was 7, and even though neither of her parents played past high school, Bean said they always supported her dream of playing collegiate basketball.
“They’ve always supported me and whatever it was me and my brother were into,” she said. “Whether he had a music concert, or I had a sporting event, they did their best to take us around everywhere, regardless, whatever we wanted to do. If I wanted to be a spy, they’d be like, ‘Let’s get you some spy gear.’”
She laughs at the thought. If Bean hadn’t developed a passion for hoops, poker might have been her game. She’s reserved, tough to read and almost unflappable.
“She’s so chill,” Roberts said. “I always tease her, ‘If your hair was on fire, you’d walk to the sink.’ But that’s kind of her strength.”
Bean has always been among the most athletic players in the Pac-12, making the highlight reel more than once with blocked shots and fast-break passes. But as her strength and endurance have increased, her ability to impact a game has become something the Utes can rely on — especially as they’ve lost one player after another to injury. Most recently, Utah lost shooting guard Daneesha Provo, who was among the team’s toughest defenders and its second-leading scorer.
“She’s put a lot of time in, and she’s still not a shoot-first point guard, but she’s got the confidence now to where she’s actually looking to score,” Roberts said. “When Daneesha went out, we actually talked about it, like everybody has got to pick up a little slack. And Bean, your lack is that you’ve got to average four to five more points per game."
She’s done that the last three games, with Utah’s second win over Colorado the most dramatic performance with 11 points, her second-highest point total this season.
“She was a big contributor offensively, so just kind of get my numbers up, looking to score a little bit more,” Bean said of what kind of pressure she feels with Provo out for the season with a knee injury. “But also defensively, being locked in on my matchup. She was a great on-ball defender, and kind of feisty. Maybe I don’t have the same defensive tendencies as her, but just being able to lock in on my matchup and be that kind of defensive presence that she was.”
Roberts said she’s pushed Bean in ways she hasn’t pushed any of her other players — in part because of what the team needs from her and in part because of the potential she saw in the athletic freshman with a bad shot.
“Honestly, I have been more intense in my coaching with her than any other player,” she said. “We needed her to be more commanding, we needed our point guard to be more assertive, and you know … her background is to be a little bit reserved.”
But this year Bean is playing with both confidence and command.
“She’s such a mellow person that it’s been fun to see her this year,” Roberts said. “She’s got a little swagger. She’s got some goofiness to her personality, and she’s letting her guard down. … That’s what college is all about, kind of figuring yourself out.”
Bean said some of the change comes from the team’s chemistry. They are a gritty — and witty — group that the point guard can’t describe without laughing.
“What I learned from playing with (Megan Huff) is that if I give her the ball, she’s going to score,” she grins. “She’s super positive. Like I don’t care what time of day it is, what she’s doing, she is always positive, always looking on the bright side, which is amazing. Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Huffy, no.’ But you know, it’s great.”
And then there are those three freshmen who’ve combined to win Pac-12 Freshman Player of the Week seven times this season.
“They’re just so fun,” Bean said. “Sometimes you want to be uptight and things get in your head. But the freshmen are like, ‘Whatever, let’s just roll with it.’ It’s been good having them because this is your senior year, and you kind of get caught up in like, ‘I need to get this done, and it’s my last year. Being able to enjoy the moment is big with them, and I think that’s what they do, and it’s really helped me to enjoy the moment here as well.”Comment on this story
And there is a lot to enjoy for the Utes who host Cal Friday at 7 p.m. at the Huntsman Center in their annual Blackout Game. Fans who come dressed in black get into the game for free, and the Utes are hoping for the kind of crowd support they’ve enjoyed all season.
As for Roberts, she’s repeatedly said that even more than talented, this year’s team is incredibly enjoyable to coach. That includes the senior who she’s pushed hard, as they now celebrate her development.
“She works hard,” Roberts said. “I have so much respect for her. She just shows up every day and goes hard. She’s never disrespectful, she’s never missed an appointment and she’s a (high honor roll student). … I just adore her.”