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Malia Nawahine's play is just one of the keys for the undefeated Utes

SALT LAKE CITY — For Malia Nawahine, the choice was simple when she decided to go to Utah — her family.

At the time in 2012, when she was recruited by the Utes, she fell in love with the family atmosphere. Besides that, she would get to play alongside her cousin, Wendy Anae, and at the time her sister Valerie, who played for the Utes from 2013-15.

The journey for Nawahine to get to where she is wasn’t easy, but it makes now all that more rewarding.

“It was kinda rough my freshman and sophomore year,” said Nawahine. “It wasn’t as successful, but it makes right now that much better. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are now, and it’s just been really fun.”

Her freshman year, the Utes finished 12-19. Sophomore year, things got worse, going 9-21 and missing 27 games due to an injury. Last year, when Utah head coach Lynne Roberts took over, things started to get better.

The Utes finished 18-15 and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. This year, the Utes are off to an impressive 9-0 start, and last week had an impressive win over in-state rival BYU. Nawahine played a vital role in that.

“She’s a key player for us,” said Roberts. “Looking at stats, she’s our second leading scorer and first in minutes. For me, it’s really hard to not have her on the floor. She does so much defensively that maybe it doesn’t even go noticed in a stat sheet.”

Nawahine hit back-to-back threes to get the Utes within one after trailing in the first quarter, but it was her defense that helped the team.

“I wouldn’t want Malia to guard me for one minute, said Roberts, “let alone 40.”

The Utes have stressed defense this season. If they play defense well, the offense will come. For Nawahine, her defense has helped her improve on offense as well this season.

“She’s improved this year,” said Roberts. “Her shooting is better, but her decision-making is better. She’s not turning it over as much, she’s not forcing things and letting the game come to her a bit.”

Nawahine is averaging 13.1 points per game nine games into the season — right behind Emily Potter, who is averaging 16.8.

Nawahine doesn’t care about the personal accolades, however, she just wants to win.

“With our team, so many people contribute on the scoring side,” she said. “So I don’t really worry about getting my points in because it kinda just comes. It opens it up for a lot of people.”

The Utes are outscoring opponents by an average of 18 points per game and pulling down 9.6 more rebounds. With Pac-12 play starting at the end of this month, the Utes' only focus is on Weber State.

“It’s all a process, and we’re not talking about Pac-12 play yet,” said Roberts. “We all know how good the league is. What we’re talking about is Weber State, that’s who we play on Saturday. That’s all we’re talking about. We just need to get better every week, we need to improve every week, and I think we’ve done that.”

Nawahine knows that the experience the team had last year and during the course of this season is only preparing the Utes for when Pac-12 play happens. For now, the attitude of Nawahine is contagious for the 9-0 Utes.

“She won’t accepting losing, said Roberts. “It could be a shooting drill and will be ticked off if she doesn’t win it. She plays with an edge, and she has that in life.”

Carra McManamon is a native of Washington state and is attending the University of Utah. Contact her at cmcmanamon@deseretdigital.com or follow her on Twitter: @curramac22