It’s been an emotionally exhausting week for UVU head coach Mark Madsen.
The Wolverines were riding high Saturday after getting their first win at Grand Canyon since 2014.
Then came the devastating news Sunday morning that Madsen’s former Los Angeles Lakers teammate and friend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant had died in a tragic helicopter accident.
Madsen had to deal with his own emotions while also getting his team ready for Wednesday’s big WAC game against California Baptist at the UCCU Center in Orem.
“It’s been hard,” Madsen said with tears in his eyes. “I just never expected that I would hear that one of my teammates died the way he died. But we’ve had great days of practice still. It made everyone reflective a little bit. It’s impacted our players. A lot of our players truly admired Kobe.”
He said that being with his team during this difficult time has been immensely valuable.
“We’ve talked a lot as a team about the importance of personal relationships,” Madsen said. “Some of our players have experienced loss in their lives. I shared with them that I’ve now lost three teammates and a head coach, Flip Saunders. We talked before the game about playing the game with so much joy and energy that it creates momentum and that it’s fun and enjoyable. We did that at times in the first half and then in the entire second half.”
UVU rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to get within one point on multiple occasions and had chances in the final seconds to tie or take the lead — but in the end California Baptist was able to hang on for the 65-61 win.
“We came out and played uncharacteristically for ourselves in the first half,” Madsen said. “I was really proud of our guys in the second half. We battled back, the defense was much improved — but we have to be better. That was a game that was winnable tonight and we let it slip away.”
The Wolverines showed impressive resiliency in the second half.
After the Lancers scored first after the break to go up 40-24, UVU charged back into the game by scoring 15 straight points.
California Baptist managed to stay in front and got an 8-0 run of its own to increase its lead to 59-50.
But the Wolverines again came up with an answer, scoring 11 of the next 15 points to cut the Lancer lead to just two.
“It speaks to the players,” Madsen said. “They never say die and they are always fighting. I know they are hurting because they battled so hard and wanted to win. I’m proud of them — but we need to get over this hump. That’s part of our growth as we build through the conference.”
He did laud the defensive effort of his team that kept them in the game.
“I need to highlight Brandon Averette because almost every defensive challenge in almost every game he embraces and wants that challenge,” Madsen said. “I think he’s one of the top defensive players in the country. Then when you couple that with Emmanuel Olojakpoke down low who is a candidate for WAC Defensive Player of the Year, our players help anchor the defense.”
UVU has now had four straight games and five of its seven conference games decided by five points or less. That means the margin for error isn’t very big.
“I told that guys that first and foremost I need to be better as the head coach,” Madsen said. “No. 2, we need to shoot the ball better. And we will. We need to make more free throws and shoot the ball better from the outside. I know we will because our guys are workers.”
UVU now is off until Feb. 8 but Madsen was very clear that this won’t be a vacation.
“We have about a week-and-a-half off of travel and of games, but that means it will be a week-and-a-half of hard work in preparation for the next phase of conference play,” Madsen said.