Utah Valley’s Unlikely MVP

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Utah Valley University guard Asumi Nakayama cuts down the nets after the Wolverines beat North Dakota 70-62 in the NCAA college basketball Great West Conference Championship game, Saturday in Orem, Utah. (Photos courtesy of Danny Chan La)

By JORDAN IKEDA

Sports Editor

March Madness has lived up to its hype thus far, at least for the Utah Valley University women’s bas­ketball team who went from unlikely pumpkins, to bippy-bobbity-boo, to slipping on that glass slipper.

When closely examined, Cinderella is a fairytale about a woman down-on-her luck, who continued to work hard and after catching just a touch of magic, ended up living happily ever after.

Sounds a lot like UVU’s 2009-10.

After undergoing a 22-loss regular season, the Wolverines went on a whirlwind run through the Great West Conference Tournament last weekend that culminated Saturday with the school becoming the conference’s first-ever tournament champions.

“I actually believed that we could do it,” UVU senior point guard Asumi Nakayama told the Rafu Shimpo. “Before this season I had a vision that we were going to win in this tournament. We came together as a team. I don’t think we were a good team before the tournament. But we peaked at the right time.”

The Wolverines realization of Nakayama’s vision took shape at the end of February against Houston Baptist and began to crest on Thursday, when the squad knocked off No. 3 seeded Chicago State in the first round of the tournament. That victory propelled them forward Friday, where they erased a 10-point first half lead, outscoring No. 2 seeded Texas-Pan America 43-15 in the final 15 minutes to move on to the finals against GWC champions North Dakota that went 11-1 in conference play.

Nakayama wears #13, but with the assists and steals she's accumulated over her four years at UVU, perhaps she should be wearing John Stockton's #12.

Saturday, Nakayama’s vision looked bleak both literally and figuratively. North Dakota got out to an early 9-0 lead before UVU scored its first points, a lead that grew to as many as 18. In addition, Na­kayama had suffered a hit over the right eye and could barely see out of it.

But the Wolverines had plenty of fight left in them and continued to battle.

Trailing by six late, Nakayama and sophomore Jenna Johnson hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers, the third coming with 1:46 to go, to put the Wol­verines up 59-57, their first lead of the game. UVU then iced the game going 11-of-12 from the line over the final minute and a half to seal the victory—their fifth in a row.

Nakayama finished with 14 points, eight assists, five steals and five rebounds and was named the Tournament MVP after averaging 17 points, 7.7 as­sists, five rebounds and over three steals per game.

When asked about winning the MVP award, Na­kayama shied away from the accomplishment.

“I’m just lucky you know,” she said. “Everyone gave it to me, but I don’t think I earned it. Everyone looked out for me so much since I came here. I played for my family and all the people who have helped me. That’s how I show my appreciation for them.”

Nakayama’s journey has been a long and suc­cessful one. Born in Saitama, Japan, the 22-year-old began playing basketball after seeing one of her older sisters pick up the sport in fifth grade.

“I was going to play volleyball,” she said, “but I saw basketball and thought that it was way more fun. It’s a very speedy sport.”

The speedy guard played point at Nakamura Gakuen Girl’s High School in Fukuoka, Japan and led the team to the Japanese National Championship her senior season.

Her collegiate career began when she was recruited by one of her coaches who had been on a Latter Day Saints missions trip in Japan. Believing herself “kinda lucky” to receive the opportunity, she came to Utah wanting to play ball, but not knowing any English.

“I think I’m a very open person who is optimistic and outgoing,” she said. “I couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t communicate with other people. It was hard for me and very different.”

Difficulties aside, after four years, the 5-4 guard has blossomed into an oncourt general as well as a vocal leader for the Wolverines.

“This year’s team, just naturally, everyone is more passive,” she said. “It’s easy to be quiet. I try to be loud during every practice. Stay positive. Try to keep us together.”

Keeping the team together also includes keeping her mates involved. Nakayama dons the number 13, the same number as NBA point guard extraordinaire Steve Nash, and she’s very much Nash-like in her ability to find teammates. She leaves UVU stacking the record books with the school’s record in total assists in a season (180), assists in a game (13) and assists per game average (4.8), in addition to records in career steals (223) and steals average (1.9).

In fact, with her uncanny knack for thievery, per­haps Nakayama should have worn the #12, seeing as her game more closely parallels with Utah’s favorite son John Stockton.

As for her future playing days, when asked, Na­kayama said she doesn’t think the WNBA is realistically possible, but would like to use her communications degree to pursue sports broadcasting in Japan.

“I can do interviews in sports. I can use my voice and what I feel,” she said. “I think it’s really attractive for me.”

After all Nakayama’s been able to accomplish and overcome here in the States, talking sports in Japanese should be as easy as bibbity-bobbity-boo!

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