Despite injuring her ACL in the 2020 season, Paige Uyehara has led the Cougars to a successful 2021 campaign. 

Being a point guard requires ultimate leadership. That leadership extends on and off the court, from calling plays on the court to bringing energy on the bench. Azusa Pacific women’s basketball point guard Paige Uyehara is the truest example of that leadership.

That fact was evident on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2020. With just under two weeks left in the regular season, Uyehara found herself on the bench towards the end of what would turn out to be a home victory over Dominican. Instead of running the offense on the court, Uyehara sat, cheering her teammates on while icing a pain-stricken knee. Earlier in that same game, Uyehara went down during a fast break.

“I remember the way I landed,” Uyehara recalled. “And I just felt my knee kind of explode in a way. It wasn’t like a sharp pain, but more of like a long, spreading pain. And I had injured my knee before, so when I went down that was my first thought.”

Being an athlete, no matter what sport, knee injuries are the most feared predators — the ACL injury, in particular. Every time a game is played there is always a possibility that someone will face the Hades of sports. Uyehara became the latest victim of that reality. 

“I remember, after the game, I was in the training room, and one of the sports doctors was there,” Uyehara said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What year are you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m a freshman.’ And he was like, ‘Okay, you’ll be back for junior year.’ And when I heard that, I just wanted to cry.”

But instead of wallowing in her injury, Uyehara continued to be the team’s ultimate leader.

“I asked if I could sit on the bench with ice and cheer on my teammates,” Uyehara said. “I was happy that we were winning, and my teammates were playing well. I didn’t want to bring everyone else around me down. I was like, when I go into that locker room, I have to put on a smile, be strong for my teammates and be happy that we still won.”

Fast forward to the Cougars 2021 campaign, and Uyehara is a large reason for their success. Aside from averaging 13 points per game and 6 assists per game, Uyehara has stepped up in every must-win game of the season. That transition, however, did not come easy.

How it started

Uyehara comes from an athletic family. In fact, she was a gymnast for nearly 13 years while hooping. When it came down to choosing one sport, the choice was rather easy.

“I had to ask myself which sport do I see myself playing not just in high school but also in college,” Uyehara said. “Gymnastics is very individual. Whereas basketball, it’s coming together on the court, and that chemistry is something you can’t find doing other things. The team aspect definitely drew me to basketball over gymnastics.”

That same sense of comradery played a part in Uyehara choosing APU. Though, the togetherness that drew her to APU wasn’t just on the basketball court.

Uyehara vividly remembers her first day on campus where a girl, whom she never met, complimented her outfit. They went on to have a full-blown conversation, and Uyehara realized that she had found the supportive community she’s always wanted.

Naturally, APU women’s basketball head coach TJ Hardeman played a role in Uyehara’s decision. She described Hardeman and his coaching staff as understanding and nurturing throughout her recruitment process and her time as a Cougar. Also, the program preaches being a student first and athlete second, something that wasn’t stressed at some of the other schools that recruited Uyehara.

The biggest factor in Uyehara’s decision to become a Cougar was the women on the team.

“Every team says it’s a sisterhood,” Uyehara laughed. “It really is, as cliche as it sounds. You spend six to seven days a week, three, four hours a day with these girls, and just knowing that you have that bond. Knowing they have your back on and off the court is something that just can’t be described.” 

The bond Uyehara speaks of really can’t be described with words. The day of her injury, Uyehara was putting her team first — being the epitome of a floor general. The team, on the other hand, put their sister first.

“I went into the locker room,” Uyehara recalled. “It was kind of just dead silent. Everyone was staring at me. I had that front of like, ‘Okay, I’m good.’ And then they decided to pray for me. I kind of just lost it. Having my teammates’ support helped me get through everything I was feeling at that time.”

Comradery and chemistry were the very factors that helped Uyehara choose between gymnastics and basketball, and they ended up being what helped her through one of the toughest moments of her athletic career.

A screenshot of my interview with Paige over Zoom

How it’s going

Uyehara did not only come back before her junior year, but she has also become one of the Cougars’ focal points on the offensive end. Her dynamic play comes in a season filled with COVID-19 testing and the injury bug. Despite the external factors, Uyehara has exceeded expectations for a player coming off of an ACL tear. In the month of February, Uyeahra averaged 17 ppg and four apg on 40% shooting from the field. Her grit is evident and comes from her earlier playing years.

“Kobe [Bryant] was my favorite player growing up,” Uyehara said. “Having the Mamba Mentality, helps me say to myself that I’m gonna push myself to get better. But not only am I going to better myself, but I’m going to better the people around me, my teammates, I’m going to push them because, at the end of the day, it’s a team sport. So you want to be able to push the people around you to get better.”

The Mamba Mentality got Uyehara through the rehab process. She was a freshman without a car, who relied on her teammates and coaches for rides to physical therapy. Much of her recovery road stretched through the COVID-19 pandemic, not only taking her away from her normal therapy routine, but also from her teammates. So she was forced to self-reflect and focus on recovery and preparing to return to the court. 

“I knew I couldn’t contribute on the court,” Uyehara said. “So I asked myself what can I do for the team off the court. So whether that be during games just being like, ‘Hey, I’m seeing this from the sidelines,’ because they may not be seeing it, or cheering for my teammates during practices. It was kind of a role switch of I’m not on the court, but I can still help them get better. I can still check in on everyone.”

Uyehara’s contribution at the time may have seemed small, but it has paid dividends for APU as they are now primed to enter the PacWest Conference tournament after winning the Southern California pod.

The Cougars entered the final weekend of February in a do-or-die situation. If they were to have lost to Point Loma, their playoff chances would be slim to none. If they were to have swept Point Loma in the back-to-back matchup, they would have secured their place in the postseason. Even though Uyehara is only a sophomore, she was not scared of the moment.

“Point Loma is a very good team,” she said. “It’s just going to come down to who wants it more and who can execute when the time comes. We have to be focused, enjoy the moments but remember we’re there to handle business.”

The Cougars went on to sweep Point Loma, securing their postseason slot. Uyehara finished with 19 points and 6 assists — perfectly embodying the Mamba Mentality.

What comes next?

When asked about what she would like her legacy to be as a Cougar, Uyehara laughed and reminded me that she is only a sophomore.

Aside from averaging double-digits points and a handful of assists, Uyehara has led a young offense through an unprecedented season. She did so without a blueprint. 

Women’s basketball began practice in January, a couple of weeks before jumping in to play. As a team, they have had to go through COVID-19 protocol every day and receive a COVID test three times a week. Interaction with anyone outside of their team bubble threatens their entire season, so they have to keep their social circles small. And when they take to the court, instead of playing in front of supporters ranging from friends and family members, they are playing in front of their coaches, an administrator or two and the opposing team.

Uyehara’s role on the team gradually changed from floor general to the team’s vocal leader on and off the court during her rehabilitation process. The Cougars welcomed a number of newcomers, replacing their hefty senior class of 2020. Uyehara took it upon herself to not only introduce the newcomers to APU but also to the team’s culture, extending the same kindness that drew her to APU.

“I took it upon myself to be the leader,” she said. “Whether that was shooting the new girls a text to see how classes were going during the first week of school, asking if they needed anything after move-in or just asking if they had any questions. I wanted to help that transition from being at home to being on campus with people that you’ve never met. I remember how loved and how welcomed I felt, and I wanted to do the same.”

Uyehara has already put herself into a very impressive category that not many athletes will be able to claim. Playing during a pandemic is one thing, but playing well during a pandemic is a whole different beast. Paige Uyehara has been that beast and more. She has been the epitome of a true point guard, channeling the Mamba Mentality to not only push through the most feared injury in sports but to also lead a team during an unprecedented time period.

That legacy is already golden, and it isn’t even fully written yet. How will that story end? Uyehara has her own thoughts on the matter.

“It would be nice to be able to say I was a part of the team that went to regionals and then won a National Championship,” Uyehara chuckled. “That’s every athlete’s goal, and not everyone gets to experience that. I would also love a legacy that highlighted the connection with the people on my team — still being able to be in each other’s lives when it’s all said and done.”