In stockpiling talent for the Utah Valley University women’s basketball team during her 19-year run on the bench, coach Cathy Nixon has spread her recruiting net far beyond the borders of the United States.
“I’ve had players from all over the world,” Nixon said. “I’ve had them from Africa, Germany, Bulgaria, Canada, Japan, New Zealand. We’ve had quite a few international players. All of those have come through connections of people that I’ve known.”
Nixon’s current team is young and talented, and while its record for the current season is not necessarily what she would like it to be, things look really good for the future. A big part of the Lady Wolverine youth movement comes in a pair of talented freshman who come to UVU all the way from the islands of the South Pacific, in New Zealand.
There is no women’s college basketball in New Zealand, so for aspiring basketball stars like Georgia Agnew and Rhaiah Spooner-Knight, who grow up dreaming of playing basketball at that level, those dreams often bring them to the United States. Agnew has been hoping for a chance to play college ball in America since she was seven or eight years old, and Spooner-Knight has been in that mode for almost as long.
“It was my dream since I was 10,” Spooner-Knight said. “I think when Coach Carter came out, I was thinking I’m going to the United States to play basketball. Ever since I was 10, I was trying to do that.”
Both have not only made their way to this country to play college basketball, but found their way into the starting line-up at UVU in just their freshman campaign. But, how did two talented players from Hamilton, New Zealand end up as Lady Wolverines?
The Road Through Salem
Georgia Agnew is from a basketball family. Her father, Steve, played basketball for the New Zealand Juniors and the Waikato men’s team and has also coached the Waikato men and women. Her mother, Ange, and her grandmother, Lois, also played for the Waikato women’s team, and her grandfather, Colin, played and coached for the New Zealand men’s team.
It is the family connection to the Waikoto men’s professional team that put Georgia on a course that eventually landed both Agnew and Spooner-Knight at UVU.
Former Weber State star Jimmy DeGraffenried played professionally all over the world before landing as the boys basketball coach at Salem Hills High School. One of his stops was in New Zealand, where he met the Agnew family, as Steve was one of his coaches.
“Jimmy played back in the day in New Zealand, for my dad’s team,” Agnew said. “They knew each other. They just kept in contact and they knew I wanted to play over here, so we just kind of organized it.”
Agnew wanted a chance to be seen by college coaches in the United States, so she came to Salem for her senior year in high school. Before she ever took the court for the Skyhawks, the 5-foot-9 point guard had found her future home at UVU after the Lady Wolverines saw her at a basketball camp in November of 2011.
“I was actually really lucky, because there was a camp. I wasn’t going to go, but at the last minute, I decided to go because I wanted to be seen by colleges,” Agnew said. “I decided to go there, and they (UVU) were there with junior college coaches and some others. I was planning on being seen at state, and then this (a knee injury) happened just a couple of weeks before. They (UVU) offered me after the camp.”
Agnew ran the point that season for a Salem Hills team that was on target for state title run until her knee injury changed things, for her and the Skyhawks. The torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered in a Jan, 31, 2012 game against Timpanogos, sent Agnew home to New Zealand for surgery, and Salem Hills lost in the state quarterfinals a few weeks later.
The knee injury caused Agnew to sit out her first year at UVU, where she took a redshirt season. Now fully healthy, she has earned her spot on the court for the Lady Wolverines.
Another advantage of having Agnew in the program that first year was the opportunity it gave Nixon to connect with Spooner-Knight. Heading into her senior year in high school in New Zealand, she had been contacted by a BYU assistant coach, but the 5-10 guard was still largely unknown in this country.
But Georgia Agnew knew her. While the two did not attend the same high school, they had played against and with each other many times in New Zealand. When Nixon asked Agnew about other players from New Zealand who might be worth a look, she mentioned Spooner-Knight.
“Most of the people back home who get seen, it’s because they know someone who knows someone,” Spooner-Knight said. “I didn’t have that one coach who I was really good with and with lots of contacts, so for me it was pretty much because of Georgia. I was pretty much going to ask around the coaches back home to see what they could do for me, but I trusted Georgia and what she said about this school.
“She is a year older than me and me and her have played together for a while. We knew each other and we played on some teams together. I think the coaches asked her if there was anyone else from New Zealand that she would recommend and out of all the people she would recommend, I was the only senior in high school. She offered my name and they got into contact with me, so I sent them some footage and they offered me after that. Just from tape and what Georgia said.”
Growing Up in New Zealand
Like it was with Agnew, family love of the sport also brought Spooner-Knight to basketball.
“My mom’s been a coach for years,” Spooner-Knight said. “I grew up in a small beach town back in New Zealand and my mom started coaching high school there and she sort of just told me to give it a go, and I was like five or six and I didn’t like it. She was just making me do it.”
It didn’t take long for that to change for Spooner-Knight and she fell in love with the game. That can happen when you discover you have a knack for something.
“I think I got to about seven and then I just started really enjoying it. I think I just saw myself getting better,” Spooner-Knight said. “When you get good at things, you like it more and more. We decided to move into Hamilton, which is like 30 minutes away, because it is just a bigger city and I started going to development, sort of, weekend practices every Sunday and I just started loving it because I was getting better at it. It just started from there.”
Agnew was always into basketball, but she dabbled in other sports that are popular in New Zealand. None of them offered her the enjoyment that she gets from playing basketball.
“Netball is a big one. You guys don’t play it here,” Agnew said. “It’s kind of like a basketball court and the hoops are just a pole, they don’t have a backboard. Basically, you have to get it into that, but you can’t dribble, you can only pass. It’s not as fun (as basketball). I used to do that.”
One of the best things for Agnew, she says, is that despite her father’s love for, and commitment to, the sport, he did not force it upon her.
“A lot of people, when their parents are their coaches, they’re really intense and they’ll push them and it will make them end up not liking the sport, but he’s really chill,” she said. “He never made me do anything. I think that’s why I like it so much, because it’s always been what I want to do. It’s the person I am and I want to do it. They’re there to help me, but they’re not crazy.”
In addition to participating with high school teams, both Agnew and Spooner-Knight were exposed to the highest levels of basketball in their home country, playing on club teams and in national development programs.
“When you’re younger, they have youth, kind of, leagues, but when you get to high school, it’s all club,” Agnew said. “They don’t have it past high school, we don’t have college sports. If you want to play, you have to play club. Clubs go past high school, but everybody starts quitting.”
Spooner-Knight spent much of her time playing with older age groups, and that helped her prepare for her transition to the competition she has seen at the college level in the United States. She says that a lot of the success she and Agnew gained in New Zealand came because of an inner drive to be great.
“When I was 15, I was every day in the gym,” Spooner-Knight said. “Back home, we have a lot of age-group national teams and I was trying to get involved with that because back home it’s real hard to find competition. Women’s basketball is sort of non-existent and you sort of have to push yourself. You have to make it happen. People aren’t always there scouting you, inviting you to things. You have to sort of do it yourself.”
Both players see a future beyond college when they can play on national teams in New Zealand or pursue other opportunities to play and continue to enjoy the sport that has brought them so much over the years.
The Transition to College Basketball
The path to the court at UVU was a bit different for Agnew than it was for Spooner-Knight. The knee injury and the redshirt season gave her a year to see the college game up close before taking the court.
“I think most college freshmen would benefit from a year of practice and acclimation to the program that they’re in,” Nixon said. “She was rehabbing a knee injury and she needed that time for her knee. Also, just physically for her body, she was able to train with our conditioning coach, who is one of the best in the business, and get stronger and just learn the system that we run here. Overall, it was just a great advantage for her.”
Even that year could not fully prepare Agnew for the role of playing the point guard position at a Division I school. For that, hard work and skill development were her biggest allies.
“Really Georgia is having an incredible year. She’s a freshman running a team of very inexperienced players,” Nixon said. “For any point guard to do that would be a challenge, but especially for a freshman.
“I can honestly say that Georgia has worked more on her own than any player I’ve ever coached here at Utah Valley and I would say any men’s player that’s been here as well. Ronnie Price, when he was here, put a lot of time in, but I’d put Georgia up against him. I literally have to kick her out of the gym. She really, truly is the most committed athlete personally that I have ever coached and I’ve had some very hard workers.”
Agnew is a not a producer of big numbers, at least not yet. She averages 30 minutes per game, and scores seven points per game, while leading the Wolverines in assists. Her greatest skills come as a playmaker and leader on the court.
“I think, for her, just quarterbacking a team at this level encompasses the biggest challenge,” Nixon said. “She’s working on her own game and it’s important to evolve as a player. Especially as teams scout you, to add things to your game and become diverse. She not only has to learn the position herself, but she also has to learn everybody else’s position. As a coach, you want your point guard to be a quarterback on the floor and she’s really learning that. She’s just doing a tremendous job.”
The drills Agnew used to do with her father to develop her dribbling skills continue to pay off for her as a college freshman.
“She really is an incredible ball-handler,” Nixon said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Pistol Pete, Pete Maravich, training video. We tease Georgia that she could do that. She has incredibly tight handles for a ball-handler. For a point guard that’s a really good luxury.”
Spooner-Knight was recently honored by the Western Athletic Conference with a spot on the league’s all-newcomer first team. While she is listed as a guard on the roster, Nixon had used her early on as a post player, until her skill level changed that perception.
“I think my coach has given me the opportunity. Obviously, as a freshman, you’ve got to earn your coach’s trust,” Spooner-Knight said. “I practice really hard and I try to make the most of the opportunities I do get and once I started producing, they gave me more court time and it’s just give me a little more freedom to do what I want.
“I was sort of like, exclusively a post and I’ve always been in between. I pushed the boundaries a bit. I started driving. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, but I just felt like I could do more. I was constricted to just being a post and I think they realized I could do more than being a post.”
Nixon is impressed with how quickly Spooner-Knight picked up the college game, especially since they have used her in a variety of roles this season. She is the team’s No. 2 scorer, at better than 11 points per contest, and its leading rebounder.
“She’s picked things up extremely fast and maybe even faster than I thought she might,” Nixon said. “Georgia had the advantage of being here a year, but Rhaiah very early on showed that she has a level of athleticism, a finesse to her game that has added to our team. It’s something that we really needed.
“The thing that is amazing about Rhaiah is that, as a freshman, she’s basically playing three positions, including the point guard position. She’s not necessarily a point guard, but we’ve found that some of the things she does at that position really work for us. She’s not only had to learn the four and five position, but also the point guard and I don’t know a whole lot of people who could do that as a freshman. We’ve just found that wherever we put her on the floor, she seems to be successful.”
The Lady Wolverines
UVU has struggled in the win-loss column during this, its first year in the WAC, but they enter this week’s conference tournament with high hopes. Beyond that, the experience a bunch of young players have gained this season provides Nixon with a glimpse of what this program has the potential to become.
“In coaching you have to have a long-term vision,” Nixon said. “For us, we’re building a program and this is the first year we’ve been able to recruit being in the WAC. It’s a lot different than being in the Great West and we have that card to play now and to recruit that way.
“I think if you match our team up against comparable experienced teams, we do pretty well. We’re getting better, the girls are working hard and they’ve bought in. I look out there occasionally and we have four and sometimes five freshmen. That makes me really optimistic about the future. We’ve taken some lumps this year as we’ve gotten our experience, but I can’t help but just be optimistic and excited.”
Being used to immediate success, both Spooner-Knight and Agnew have learned to take the same long-term view as their coach.
“I’m a person that looks at the bigger picture. I sort of take into consideration that we’re a young team,” Spooner-Knight said. “No one really knows us anyway so we’ve got nothing to lose. We haven’t had a really good record, but I think we’ve learned a lot. It’s going to happen. I know next season is going to be better. This season, I haven’t really taken a lot to heart because I know there is a learning curve for all of us. It’s just a big experience and we’ve got to learn and grow from it. Hopefully it will turn around for us in the tournament.”
“I think it’s going to be really good,” Agnew said. “Even though we have some people who are leaving, there are a lot who are going to spend a lot of college years together. We’ll learn each other’s strengths and learn to work with each other and know when to do certain things and when not to. We’re competing with every team we’re playing. I think we’re going to be good.”