It’s been a rocky road for the UVU women’s basketball over the last few months.
You always have to expect some bumps when you have a coaching change and that was definitely something the Wolverines dealt with.
“I’m not going to lie: It’s been frustrating,” UVU sophomore center Josie Williams said earlier this week. “I think one of the most frustrating parts was that in practice we were seeing ourselves making huge jumps and progress — but we weren’t getting the results we wanted.”
That adjustment period in some ways was even more challenging for sophomore guard Maria Carvalho, since she’d been dealing with adjusting ever since she arrived in Orem in 2018.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Carvalho said.
Carvalho is one of the international players on the Wolverine squad, hailing from Portugal.
“I started playing basketball when I was 11-years-old,” Carvalho said. “I had a goal to play basketball in America. When I graduated from high school, I was playing for the Portugal U19 national team. I talked to some universities but I wanted a safe place and a place where I could actually play. I thought UVU was the best for me.”
She explained that she had to adapt her game to the way basketball is played at UVU.
“Playing point guard in Portugal is more about just passing the ball and reading the game,” Carvalho said. “Here, yes, you pass the ball but you can also shoot it. I had the feeling last year that me shooting 3-pointers was not good. I knew I had to practice that because they wanted me to make those. Then the language was SO hard.”
All of those struggles for Carvalho were then compounded by having to start again with a new coaching staff, although Wolverine head coach Dan Nielson said during his career he feels like he has learned a little bit about working with international players.
“I hadn’t experienced it much until the last five or six years,” Nielson said. “I love international players because they are typically selfless and willing to play team ball. I’m glad I have a baseline knowledge from when I was an assistant working with international kids because maybe when Maria or one of the other international players has a frustrating practice or game, they don’t have a family to go home to. It’s about staying on top of it, making sure they are alright and have the support they need.”
For Carvalho and the entire UVU squad, starting the season going 1-9 certainly tested their resiliency.
“We had individual pieces and talent but it was about getting them to work together,” Nielson said. “We probably could’ve won three or four games if we just played zone defense because the girls are comfortable with that. But we as a staff were committed to fighting through it and helping them with the defense. We’ve improved a lot defensively.”
But starting with a big home win over Utah State on Dec. 21, the Wolverines have gotten things going in the right direction.
“We bought into it and decided that we have the same goal, wanting to win the WAC,” Carvalho said. “We started working for it. We started really playing together for the first time. Defensively we’re working great. We’re winning games because we are working really hard on defense.”
Now UVU has put together a four-game winning streak, including starting with a perfect 2-0 record in league play.
With that success has come individual accolades.
Williams was honored as the WAC Player of the Week on Dec. 30 after she scored a career-high 20 points to lead the Wolverines to a 99-50 win over Ottawa (Ariz.).
“Dan said that it’s a team honor really,” Williams said. “The guards are getting me the ball. When we get recognized like that, it’s for the whole team and the whole team realizes that we are playing together. Individuals don’t get recognized on teams that aren’t playing well.”
Carvalho was then recognized as WAC Player of the Week on Jan. 6 after she averaged 15 points, five rebounds and six assists as she led the Wolverines to a pair of dominating wins in conference play.
“She has probably made the biggest strides this year,” Nielson said. “In the last five or six games, she’s really gotten a feel for what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it. She is so quick and athletic, she takes care of the ball, she runs the team and the added bonus is that she’s started to shoot the ball like she knows she is capable of. Defensively she has been awesome as well.”
After all the frustrations and obstacles, Carvalho said that having things come together like they did last week was tremendously rewarding.
“It feels really good,” Carvalho said. “When you work really hard and then things are going as you want them to, suddenly everything changes. You just feel good about everything and that’s how I feel.”
Williams said she loves playing with Carvalho and the way they can attack opponents.
“It’s been fun because we have a post-guard presence,” Williams said. “We were trying to figure each other out, how we like the passes and things like that. I can get it inside, get double-teamed, kick it back out to her and know she is going to hit the shot. I love it.”
UVU knows there are plenty of tough challenges ahead, including facing Seattle at the UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday (2 p.m., WAC Digital Network). They just want to keep improving.
“Just because we won the last few games doesn’t mean we are going to win the next one,” Carvalho said. “We need to understand that we are playing good teams. We need to do the small things.”
Williams added: “We can’t take steps back. Toward the beginning of the season we thought we would be taking a step forward and then we would take a step back. Right now we are just taking steps forward. We want to continue to build that momentum.”