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The Wendy Way: Utah junior center Wendy Anae finding her confidence with the Utes

SHARE The Wendy Way: Utah junior center Wendy Anae finding her confidence with the Utes
And I just honestly felt, not like she said something back, but like just do what feels right in your heart, just go with your heart. And that’s where my heart was here in Utah. – Wendy Anae

SALT LAKE CITY — Wendy Anae could not hear her mother’s voice as she pleaded for help making the biggest decision of her life.

But the Utah junior felt the guidance of Valerie Cravens Anae in her heart as she contemplated whether to accept a basketball scholarship offer from the University of Utah just months after her mother’s death.

“It was really, really, really hard,” Anae said, “because she was the person who’s been so involved in my basketball career, and here it was one of the biggest decisions of my life, and I was ... I literally didn’t know what to do.”

She’d just finished a campus visit when former Utah head coach Anthony Levrets gave her some privacy to consider the Utes’ offer.

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Wendy Anae | Steve C. Wilson, Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

“I just fell in love with Salt Lake City,” Anae said. “I fell in love with, mainly our team — the team atmosphere, the family atmosphere.”

Near the end of the visit, she went into a room and did what she’d always done when it came to life questions: She asked for her mother’s advice.

“I was like, ‘What do I do? I don’t know what to do,’” Anae said. “’How do I handle this? What do you think?’ And I just honestly felt, not like she said something back, but like just do what feels right in your heart, just go with your heart. And that’s where my heart was here in Utah.”

Anae has never regretted her decision, even though her dream was to follow in her mom’s footsteps and play for BYU.

“My dream school was BYU because both of my parents went there,” said the junior center, who was asked to play a much more significant role when backup center Joeseta Fatuesi was sidelined after knee surgery. “But I didn’t really fall in love with basketball until my junior year.”

Anae said it was her mother’s affection for the game that carried her most of her young life.

“My mom is super competitive, and she had a really tall daughter, so she was excited to work with me,” Anae said, laughing. “But I liked Barbies and dancing. I mean I knew how to dribble the ball and everything, but I didn’t really start playing competitively until seventh grade.”

Anae did share a love of running with her mom, who was a track standout at Hawaii’s Kahuku High. But when it came to basketball, Anae said she borrowed her mom’s passion until she found her own.

“I played just to impress my mom and follow in her footsteps,” Anae said. “A lot of people say I’m more athletic than my mom, but my mom is just like a genius when it comes to basketball. She knew the game so well, and she worked really, really hard to become one of the best players.”

Anae’s parents divorced when she was 11, and Valerie Anae, who is still No. 15 on the all-time scoring list for the Cougars, moved to California with her six children so she could be near her parents. The divorce not only upended her life, it estranged her from her father, the younger brother of former BYU coach and current Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

“That was really hard because I thought our family was freaking awesome,” she said. “I felt like my parents were really good parents. I felt so lucky and blessed to have them, and then to have them split, it was like, ‘What?’ But it happens, life happens. It was hard because I was really close to my dad, but he’s gotten back into my life recently and he’s doing great.”

Anae said her mom not only insisted she play basketball, she was both a coach and her loudest cheerleader.

“The gym would be so noisy, and my mom’s voice was the one voice I could always hear,” she said, noting her mother never missed a track meet, cross country race or basketball game. She would offer instruction during games to Wendy by writing advice on cards and sending one of her siblings to deliver it when she was sitting on the bench.

After the game, they would break down her play with the same ritual.

“She would go, ‘Pros or cons?’” Wendy said, smiling. “I would go cons first. … It was always ‘Watch the ball’ and then stuff like ‘Box out your man’ or ‘You need more arc on your shot.’… It was always Xs and Os.”

As for missing practices or quitting, Anae said, ‘That wasn’t an option.”

In the middle of her junior year, a club coach offered her a spot on a competitive team, which her uncle felt might help expose college coaches to her talent. But when the club coach told her how much it would cost, she knew her mom couldn’t afford it.

He told her she could play anyway.

When she told him she couldn’t always make practices because of track commitments, he told her to come when she could.

“He’s honestly one of the best guys I know,” Anae said.

It was during a tournament while playing with club team, about six months later, that earned her a scholarship offer from Levrets.

In July 2012, Wendy said she was preparing for a “huge tournament” with her club team when she got a call that her mother was gravely ill.

“I got a call that my mom was in the hospital and the doctor said she was supposed to die that night,” Anae said.

When she told her club coach, he told her there would be other basketball opportunities and that she “needed to take care of her family first.”

“He told me everything would work out,” Anae said. “She actually lived for two more weeks, and then passed away.”

She met Levrets a few weeks later, and was led to Utah. She and her cousin, Springville star Malia Nawahine, committed that same season. Even with family on the team and her mom’s sister nearby, that first year at Utah was rough.

“My first year was extremely hard,” she said. “It was hard adjusting to Pac-12 basketball, just to living by myself and being away from home. Obviously, (losing my mom) was still fresh. I have three younger siblings, and it was hard to be away from them.”

She said not having her mom to help her navigate so many significant changes was incredibly painful.

“She never liked to be called best friend, but literally, she was like my best, my best person,” Anae said. “And it was hard not to have that. Everyone would say, ‘You can call me. I’m here for you.’ But it’s not the same.”

And then there was the losing.

“That was part of the struggle,” she said. “As a freshman, you come into the program so hyped. And it was really hard to just lose over and over and over.”

Her first year at Utah, the team was 12-19. The next year, Utah was 9-21 with just three conference victories. At the end of the season, Levrets was fired and Lynne Roberts was hired a month later.

Her initial trepidation about the coaching change shifted when Roberts sat down with each player in an attempt to “really get to know us.”

“I stayed because I felt like she was a personable person, like I really wanted to help her build this program,” Anae said. “I wanted to be part of that.”

Anae said Roberts understands what motivates each individual player.

“She wouldn’t scream and yell at me because, sometimes, I’m a little emotional,” Anae said. “She knows what motivates me, and she knows what makes me go. When I’m having an off-day, she’ll be the first one to text me. She’s just a really good coach.”

While Anae, a redshirt junior, played sparingly in her first two seasons, that changed this season when Fatuesi was injured. “I felt like I prepared throughout the offseason,” Anae said, adding that Fatuesi is one of her favorite teachers and most critical mentor. “But I never wanted Jo to get hurt. That’s like the worst-case scenario.”

Anae's minutes went from single digits to 25 minutes and a career-high 13 points against Washington. She is gaining confidence and even surprising herself.

“It’s crazy to think, but every day I just try to do my best,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten more comfortable.”

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Utah Utes forward Wendy Anae, right, looks to get around Washington State guard Alexys Swedlund as Utah and Washington State play in the Huntsman Center on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Roberts praised Anae’s effort and improvement.

“Wendy has been great,” Roberts said. “I thought she was really good against Washington State. She’s been really consistent and that’s something we’ve needed, especially with Joeseta (Fatuesi) out.

"I’m really proud of Wendy and she’s done a really nice job. A few months ago I talked about Wendy’s biggest hurdle is getting out of her own way and needed that confidence. You can see how she’s played, how she’s carrying herself, how she’s practicing, she’s getting that confidence and it’s showing on the floor. She’s been a huge help and she’s doing a really nice job.”

Anae said her fear and tendancy to get frustrated with herself is what’s held her back. She knows Fatuesi left big shoes to fill, but she’s also attempting to put her own stamp on the game and on the program.

“I didn’t want to be that girl that’s like, ‘Oh, no we have to put in her because we have no where else to go,'” she said. “But, how I gain success is by outworking people because I’m not the biggest girl out there and I’m not the strongest one. And just being locked in, especially on defense. Defense is kind of my game. It’s what fuels my offense.”

As the team prepares for its final regular-season game of the season at Washington on Saturday, Anae said she thinks her mother would not only be proud of her progress, but would express it in her own unique way.

“It wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you,’” Anae said. “Like I know she is, but it would be ‘pros and cons.’”

And Wendy, as she always did, would ask for the cons first. In her mom’s memory, she talks herself through the exercise.

“I still have a hard time watching the ball,” she said, laughing heartily. “I think I can work on my technique of boxing out, for sure. And I need to embrace that next play mentally. I’m way better, and I think that’s part of my success and development during this season. … Coach Rob has tried to (ingrain) it in my brain, ‘Move on.’ I think that’s what’s kept me back, my frustration.”

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Utah Utes forward Wendy Anae poses for a photo in the Jon and Karen Huntsman Basketball Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

And as far as pros, she said, “I am looking at the basket. Second one, finally, my confidence is getting better. That’s definitely a pro.”

She pauses for a moment to think about what might be No. 3, and then she smiles.

“Not being afraid. Going against the players, especially the post players in the Pac-12 is crazy hard. So, just being fearless.”