LAS VEGAS — After watching five Pac-12 women’s tournament basketball games over three days, I took in the Fresno State vs. University of Nevada-Las Vegas quarterfinal in the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Best game ever.
And I say that as — after the Fresno State game — I caught the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the then-No. 1 men’s team in the national, play Pepperdine.
Maddi Utti, a four-year stalwart for the Seaside girls basketball team, is in her sophomore season for the Bulldogs of Fresno State.
When I caught my first glimpse of Utti during the team warmups, I thought “Maddi has spent some time in the weight room.”
My judgments connected to the question I posed to Marci Utti, Maddi’s mother, when I asked what her thoughts were on her daughter’s time and success at Fresno.
Marci’s first response was a nonverbal expression of pride in Maddi. I could see it in her eyes and a pause to catch her breath and gather her thoughts.
“Maddi has worked really hard,” she said. “Being a college student-athlete is very demanding and she has stepped up in every facet of her studies and basketball.”
Mom is very thankful that her daughter is in a program with excellent coaching that is demanding and caring.
“Maddi has grown in so many ways beyond basketball, as the team is required to engage in community service, participate in kid’s camps and meet with team boosters,” she said.
Prior to making the trip to watch Maddi, I contacted her two high school coaches, Wally Hamer and Mike Hawes.
They both had words of praise for her relentless work ethic, natural abilities and team focus.
Said Hamer, “Maddi, since she was little, had the ability to make everyone around her better. She has always been a great competitor and passed that on to her teammates.”
Women’s basketball is a tough game. So Hawes made it clear Utti has what it takes for the game when he recalled that in the state playoffs, “her senior year, in our first-round game, she was undercut and landed on her chin and braced herself with her right wrist. First 40 seconds of the game. I went out on the court, and thought, oh my, this is how it ends. She was bleeding all over.
“We literally patched her together and sent her back out, and she comes over and says her wrist is hurt,” he said. “She hadn’t even noticed because of her sliced chin. She said she couldn’t shoot from more than a foot because it hurt too much and I said, ‘just get to the rim.’ And, of course, she did. She played the final games with a broken wrist. Tough, tough young woman.”
In Fresno State’s quarterfinal matchup with UNLV, Utti drew the short straw and was assigned to guard a couple of very tall senior girls — 6-4 Katie Powell and 6-2 Paris Strawth.
It was a tough assignment that caused her to draw two early fouls, earning her a seat on the bench for some of the first half.
After the intermission the team adjusted, shut down the big girls and Utti continued to contribute to the victory. The play-by-play sheet provided at the conclusion of the game shows “steal by Utti, good layup by Utti, assist by Utti, rebound by Utti.”
Armed with press credentials, I attended the postgame news conference. Utti was one of the two athletes that head coach Jamie White brought to the session.
After a warm greeting, I let Utti know I was very impressed with her and the team’s play. My first question was what message she had for folks back home.
“Tell everyone I appreciate their support, they have all been so good to me.”
Turning to coach White, I asked how the team shut down UNLV’s tall players, in particular Powell, who had 14 points in the first half and three in the second.
Said White, “we focused on getting her out of the game and with her long reach, quick movements and tenacious defense, Maddi had a tremendous impact on keeping the ball out of Powell’s hands or disrupting her shots.”
Utti had an impressive season, starting in all 31 games and averaging just over 32 minutes. She shot 56.4 percent from two-point range and 50 percent from beyond the arc. At the free throw line she was 52 of 63. Total points for the season were 380.
She gathered 77 offensive and 150 defensive rebounds, 68 assists, 59 steals and 33 blocked shots. For her efforts, she earned honorable mention on the all-Mountain West team and first team all-Mountain West defense.
Prior to the start of the UNLV game, Marci Utti, with a glow of pride in her daughter, had mentioned these two all-Mountain West team honors.
“It was hard work that got her to Fresno State, earned her a starting position and then these honors. She is not done yet.”
Indeed there will be more to come from Maddi Utti, and we on the North Coast can be very proud that one of our own is representing Seaside High and the communities in such fine fashion.
Neil Branson is a former teacher, cross country and track coach at Seaside High School