Just about every day for most of the past six years, Dan Nielson could be found at the Marriott Center or BYU basketball facility coaching the Cougar women’s basketball team as an assistant coach or associate head coach.
Last May, however, he headed back to UVU (where he was an assistant from 2009-13) to take the helm for the Wolverines.
Saturday afternoon’s game between BYU and UVU at the Marriott Center in Provo marked Nielson’s return to a place that was very much his home for a long time.
“It’s always fun getting to play the people you know and the players you recruited,” Nielson said. “It’s competition, like a lot of in-state game. Obviously when you know everyone, it’s a little more involved. I was trying to look at it like a day in practice where (Cougar head coach Jeff Judkins) and I would each coach a team and go against each other. You have relationships with the girls there just like with the girls at UVU now and you get to know them and you want nothing but the best for them — except maybe today.”
His Wolverines — who have struggled early in the 2019-20 season — played inspired and gave the Cougars quite a challenge but in the end BYU proved to be too much as it pulled away to get the 71-57 win.
“We had a some breakdowns on defense and on offense we got a little stagnant where we weren’t moving the ball,” Nielson said. “They are tough. If they hit shots and you miss a couple, it can go from a two-point game to a 10-point game pretty quick. I’m proud of the way our team continued to compete and didn’t give in. I think it bodes well for our future.”
Cougar head coach Jeff Judkins said it was great to have his friend and former colleague bring his team in and see them compete.
“Dan did a great job getting his team ready to play,” Judkins said. “He knows every call and I’m not going to change calls for this game. I called something out and they knew it. It doesn’t mean you can stop it but it gives you a little advantage that way. It was fun because I kind of knew what he was going to do. It’s fun to coach against each other and he’s a good coach.”
BYU senior guard Brenna Drollinger said it was a little odd to hear Nielson’s familiar voice calling out instructions to the other team.
“It was different,” Drollinger said. “Dan runs a lot of the same plays we run, so you would hear him call something out and we would be like, ‘wait, is that us?’ But it wasn’t and we knew that. We’re happy for Dan that he was able to get the head coaching job and get some experience as a head coach.”
UVU started the game strong and didn’t trail in the first quarter, hitting four 3-pointers in the period to stay in front.
The Cougars rallied in the second, using a 14-2 run to build a 33-23 advantage but Nielson’s squad didn’t fold. The Wolverines battled back to cut the BYU advantage to just 37-36 at halftime.
“We came out and executed our game plan,” Nielson said. “We hit shots when we were open, which was nice. Our team hasn’t shot the ball we are capable of shooting yet this season but we hit some open shots and we executed well. We felt ready and were well-prepared. We just did a little better in the first half than we did the second half.”
The home team proved to be too much after the break, however, pulling away to lead by as many as 18 points as the Cougars secured the victory.
BYU was led by 19 points and seven rebounds from Drollinger, while senior forward Shalae Salmon added 14 points and six rebounds. UVU sophomore guard Maria Carvalho paced the visitors with 10 points as part of a balanced effort.
“In the first half they were on fire, making everything,” Salmon said. “I think at the three-game losing streak we had, we really wanted this game. I felt like we executed the things we needed to execute to get the shots we needed to get. We were more sharp than usual because we knew how important this game was to win.”
Judkins said Salmon took her game to another level because Nielson was there.
“She played a really nice game today,” Judkins said. “I think it really meant a lot to her because Dan coached her for so many years. She wanted to do the things she’s worked hard on. I thought she responded to it. When she slows down and does what she is supposed to, she is very effective.”
Both teams have some rough times this year as the Wolverines have gone through some transitioning with a new staff and the Cougars have dealt with the impact of injuries.
“The next step for us is getting wins, actually seeing the results from the work,” Nielson said.
Judkins said his Cougar team is making some improvements but still hasn’t clicked the way he wants to see it click.
“As a team, we don’t understand what we have right now,” Judkins said. “It took us a little bit last year and then we figured it out. Hopefully we’ll get there.”
BYU (4-4) now heads to Maui, Hawaii, for the Maui Jim Maui Classic women’s basketball tournament where the Cougars will face San Jose State on Dec. 18 and No. 4 Oregon State on Dec. 19.
The Wolverines (1-8) continue their in-state road trip when they play at Weber State on Dec. 17.
“They are a good team but I think we’ll have a chance to win that game,” Nielson said. “Then we play Utah State, so it will be another in-state game where hopefully we can compete. Hopefully we can come back strong after Christmas having gotten some wins and seeing results from the effort.”