From Australia to the Pac-12, Utah’s Issy Palmer and Stanford’s Emma Agnes-Nnopu bring friendship to a title chase

Palmer, Utah’s starting point guard, will play against her best friend in a journey that has been a long time coming

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Issy Palmer (1) as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

The Utah team bus had barely pulled into its Palo Alto, Calif., hotel last month when Issy Palmer received the message she was waiting for.

Glancing down at her phone, she saw a text from Stanford wing Agnes Emma-Nnopu saying she was there to pick her up and hang out. The former Australian teammates, turned Pac-12 rivals, had some long-awaited catching up to do — but they had to be careful how they did.

“She hid all the scouting [notebooks], and we hung out at her house the night before the game,” Utah’s starting point guard recalled. “That night she’d actually tell me she was starting. The next day, she was marking me and she didn’t divulge that information. I laughed like, ‘You idiot.’

“But it was good to hang out.”

As Palmer would put it, she and Emma-Nnopu are best mates. Their relationship can be traced back to grade school in Canberra, Australia, where they lived together as teammates at the prestigious Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence. Most recently, their friendship has taken on a more awkward turn as they play on opposite ends of the Pac-12′s budding rivalry between Stanford and Utah.

This Saturday, they will meet again as the Utes and Cardinal play for a shot at the Pac-12 regular-season championship. Emma-Nnopu will come off the bench. Palmer will run Utah’s offense, hoping to lead the No. 8 Utes to their first title in program history and dethrone the Cardinal.

“It is pretty cool to play against her every time — just now as the two best teams in the Pac-12,” Palmer said.

Stanford guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu passes the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Pullman, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

But for these two, the journey to this stage of the sport has been a long time coming. Palmer and Emma-Nnopu have been each other’s backbone as they have navigated injuries, new countries and the intricacies of college basketball.

It began back in 2018, when Emma-Nnopu and Palmer met at the Centre of Excellence — essentially an Olympic boarding school where the country’s best junior athletes live, train and go to school. It has produced the likes of WNBA great Liz Cambage.

When Emma-Nnopu and Palmer were there, they won a bronze medal with the U17 Australia World Cup team. Around that same time, they set their sights on playing college basketball.

“We thought about playing together,” Palmer admitted. “We’d speak about it all the time.”

But life took a different course. Palmer, a year older, ventured off to Texas to start her career. She began recruiting Emma-Nnopu to follow her and played in 27 games as a true freshman. Emma-Nnopu took an official visit to Texas. But after that season, staff changes in Austin led both of them to reconsider.

Palmer wound up entering the transfer portal and Emma-Nnopu redirected her efforts by committing to Stanford.

“When Issy went into the portal, we jumped on her immediately,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “We were aware of her before [Texas]... I think she wanted a place where the [staff] wanted her and not inherited her, which is a different feeling.”

Even then it wasn’t smooth sailing. Palmer sat out the 2021 season due to injuries. Throughout her career she had a Lisfranc injury in both of her feet — a relatively uncommon issue where the bones and ligaments tear apart. In many instances, it is career-altering.

As for Emma-Nnopu, she struggled to break into the rotation on one of the better teams in the nation. That 2021 season, Stanford won the national title but the freshman only played about six minutes per night. The next year too, she only got five minutes a night as Stanford won the Pac-12 again.

“We kind of have taken the same path,” Palmer said.

This year, though, it has all come full circle. Palmer is having the best season of her career, averaging eight points and three assists per night. The Utes are a projected one-seed in the NCAA Tournament because of it.

As for Emma-Nnopu, she is in the rotation averaging 13 minutes a night and scored a career-high 17 points last week.

“Issy has dealt with a lot of pain, a lot of chronic injuries that aren’t fixable,” Roberts said. “She has had hamstring injuries. She is just a tough kid.”

This Friday, the night before the game, Palmer is prepared to return the hospitality by hosting Emma-Nnopu at her Salt Lake City apartment. No doubt the same protocol will be in place with scouting reports hidden and game plans top secret.

Eventually, they hope they will play together again in the Australian pro basketball league — making this routine obsolete. But for now, this will do. And come Saturday, the two best friends will play against each other with everything on the line. It is the latest chapter in a friendship that has seen many turns.