Monson: Utah's Mitchell has transcended turmoil
Besides basketball, there are other things, important matters, on Leilani Mitchell's mind these days.
Tear-your-heart-out-and-slam-it-back-in concerns that have rearranged her perspective and taught her the most significant issues in life have little to do with hoops and the hardwood.
It's just that nobody would know it from the way she plays.
On the court, basketball seems the sum and substance of her existence. She's single-minded there, as comprehensive a player as any coach could dream of.
This is what Mitchell's coach, Utah's Elaine Elliott, says about her point guard: "She doesn't have any weaknesses. She's consistent. She rebounds the ball. She gets steals. She's a good defensive player. Offensively, she sees the floor, she hits the three, she's got a good midrange game, she finishes, and she handles the press. She's as well-rounded as any player I've had."
Elliott also says Mitchell, after she graduates in May, will be playing in the WNBA.
For the time being, she quarterbacks the 16th-ranked Utes, and is pleased to be doing so. "It's fun," she says. "I couldn't ask for a better way to finish my [college] career. The coaches, the players, the practices, the games, studying film, joking around, having a good
time, all of it. We're really close. That shows with our chemistry on the court. It helps us win games. But it's not all just the winning. I've learned it's the journey that counts."
Mitchell ran into that lesson in three stages of increasing intensity.
The first came after her high school years in Kennewick, Wash., where she grew up with five brothers. She was recruited to and enrolled at the University of Idaho, a program that had its share of competitive problems over three seasons. The Vandals lost - a lot. The losing led to yelling on the part of coaches, which led to discord among coaches and players, which led to malaise hovering over everyone, which led to misery all around.
Even though Mitchell had only one year of eligibility left, she wanted it to fall not one bit short of what she previously envisioned her college basketball experience to be.
The second stage arrived after she did at Utah. The 5-foot-5 guard redshirted last season, and emerged as a force for the Utes this year. In-between came news of her parents' difficult divorce, which precipitated her mother moving back to her native Australia.
"That was hard," Mitchell says.
It got worse in stage three.
Her mom, Eleanor, was diagnosed with breast cancer in May.
Mitchell traveled to Darwin, Australia, to spend three weeks with her mother, but Eleanor was hospitalized for most of that time. Still, she bonded with her mom, spent time with extended family members, some of whom she'd never met, and generally soaked in most of the things a loving daughter would and could from a loving-but-infirm mother.
"It changed my outlook on life," Mitchell says. "You don't take anything for granted. You just want to enjoy the people in your life. It forces you to grow up, and it changes your perspective. You want to live every day without regrets and take advantage of what you have."
Eleanor has fought her battle and continues to do so. She plans to attend Leilani's graduation from school in three months.
In the interim, Mitchell has taken her life lessons to the court - and flourished.
She is one of the main engines behind the Utes' emergence as a team picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West that now is on its way to a probable league title. The 23-3 Utes (12-0 in conference) already have bubbled up to the aforementioned national ranking, which could go higher.
Last week, Mitchell's line against Brigham Young looked like this: 16 points, 12 assists, seven steals. Final score: 82-45, Utah. Her season averages are 16.7 points, 7.23 assists (first in the Mountain West and fifth nationally), and 1.69 steals.
Mitchell is one of nine finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, acknowledging the top point guard in the country.
Stats and accolades are all right, but the image that best rounds out Mitchell's personal picture is this: On Feb. 11, during practice, she cracked open a bloody wound when she collided with another player, necessitating three staples to be gunned into her head. She was out for 40 minutes and, then, back practicing again.
"She's a great person," says Elliott. "Leilani's come through some stuff, and she's really solid."
Stuff has made her that way. Maybe the essence of life can, indeed, be expressed on a basketball court.
"Sometimes, I think about my mom and I question, 'Why is this happening to her?'" Mitchell says. "But it's motivation for me. I can get up, go to class, work hard, and do the things I need to do."
She doesn't want to take anything for granted. She wants to live every day without regrets. And take advantage of everything she has.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mitchell - by the numbers
Where Leilani Mitchell ranks in the Mountain West Conference in assists per game. She dishes out 7.23 assists per game (ranks fifth nationally as of Sunday).
The senior point guard has won five (or one-third) Mountain West Conference Player of the Week awards, more than any other player in the MWC.
She has eight 20-point games this year. That count includes five 24-point outings and two season-high-tying 26-point games (at BYU and UNLV).
Sharing the ball
Nation's Top 10 assists leaders (ranked in the order of their scoring average as of Sunday):
School Assists PPG
1. Kristi Toliver Maryland 7.7 17.3
2. Leilani Mitchell Utah 7.2 16.7
3. Kate Achter Bowling Green 6.8 13.74
4. Clare Faucher Portland State 8.8 12.5
5. Tiera DeLaHoussaye W. Michigan 7.7 12.0
6. Amanda Rego San Diego 8.4 10.2
7. Shantae Robinson Alabama State 6.7 9.8
8. Christine Kinneary Boston 6.9 7.7
9. Andrea Barber So. Mississippi 6.6 6.0
10. Patrika Barlow Louisville 7.1 5.8