Why the Utes need their ‘Grandma’ back to full strength

Senior guard Isabel Palmer missed 10 weeks with a strange head injury. Now she’s back and becoming her old self.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Isabel Palmer (1) takes the ball up the middle, as Oregon State Beavers guard Kennedie Shuler (1) defends, in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

Isabel Palmer looked like her old self.

It was early in the second quarter in Utah’s 73-61 road win over Washington State. She drove to the right, stopped quickly with a behind-the-back dribble, and finished the sequence with a layup.

It portended a breakout game from the fifth-year senior Australian guard. She finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench — by far her most effective output since returning from a strange head injury that kept her out for 10 weeks.

“This past weekend in Washington, it seemed to click for her and she looked like the Issy we’ve all become accustomed to,” Utes coach Lynne Roberts said. “It was really fun to see her have joy being healthy and playing again.”

The last time Palmer played and shot that much was against Baylor — in mid-November. In a practice after that game, she collided with a teammate and suffered migraines for weeks. It wasn’t until mid-January that she was symptom-free and able to get back on the court.

The Utes didn’t refer to Palmer’s situation as anything more than an “undisclosed injury,” seemingly because they struggled to figure out exactly what was wrong. She wasn’t placed in concussion protocol, and she wasn’t dealing with mental health issues, she said. It was a head injury during which symptoms came and went.

“It wasn’t a concussion,” Roberts said, “but it was kind of like a concussion.”

“It was just a gray area coming back,” Palmer added. “I didn’t feel great here and there.”

Roberts said it made more sense to wait until Palmer was fully healthy because of the unpredictable nature of the injury.

“It was tough, and it was hard on her, but it’s the right thing to do [to] keep her out,” Roberts said.

Palmer had played only three games before sitting out with the head injury. Not long after, Gianna Kneepkens broke her foot and was lost for the season. That left the Utes without two of their starting guards an in a scramble to figure out how to save their season.

Kneepkens has been trying to be influential behind the scenes. While Palmer was out, she tried to help, too, by imparting her wisdom to the point guards who have had to pick up the slack — Inês Vieira and Matyson Wilke.

That wisdom, teammates say, is partly why Palmer’s nickname is “grandma.”

“I think it’s just her wisdom and perspective on [not just] the game, but life,” Wilke said. “She’s been through a lot of things that you can go through as an athlete on and off the court. So she’s kind of there for everyone, no matter what they’re going through.”

But there’s another reason Palmer has that moniker.

“I’m the oldest on the team,” said Palmer, who turned 23 on Sunday. “I’m not even that old.” She added that teammates also call her “oldie.”

Vieira won the starting point guard spot in Palmer’s absence. Since returning Jan. 19, Palmer has appeared in six games and come off the bench in each one.

For the season, Palmer is averaging 7.7 points in 17.4 minutes per game. But even though it’s taken a few games for Palmer to get back on track, Roberts is confident the best is yet to come for her Aussie point guard.

“We’re going to need it as we head down the stretch,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to win as many games as we possibly can so we can get the best seed we can in the tournament. That’s when it’s going to be, I think, Palmer time.”

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