Being stuck on the bench for almost six weeks with a case of mononucleosis wasn’t what Center Grove girls basketball standout Emma Utterback had in mind when her junior season began.
As tough as it was being sidelined for five games, though — including marquee matchups with the likes of Pike and Martinsville — the 5-foot-8 guard was able to take some positives out of the experience.
Seeing the game from a different vantage point enabled Utterback to pick up on some things that she hadn’t necessarily noticed while playing before, and she’s planning to use those to her advantage going forward.
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“There were some things I noticed, like looking more for our screeners and our posts,” she said. “When I was sitting out, I noticed that there’s a lot of times that when they’d cut, they’d be wide open. So seeing that, I’m looking for them a little bit more.”
Since making her return at the Columbus North Invitational Dec. 28 to 29, Utterback’s assists are up and her turnovers are down. She’s also remained a potent scorer, ranking second on the Trojans with 8.6 points a night.
Where Center Grove was missing Utterback the most during her absence, however, was on defense. Her disruptive presence at the head of the Trojans’ pressure defense was something that the team hadn’t been able to replicate without her.
“She is absolutely a difference-maker defensively,” Center Grove coach Kevin Stuckmeyer said. “Her ball pressure and her ability to keep girls in front and cause havoc on them with the ball pressure — without lunging, without taking herself out of our defensive framework.
“We noticed that the first couple of games she was back in the (Columbus North) tournament. Terre Haute North and Mooresville really struggled with our defensive pressure, and she sets that tone defensively for us.”
In her last three games before her illness, Utterback had averaged four steals — including five in the Johnson County championship game against Whiteland. She picked right up where she left off when she came back, totaling six thefts against Terre Haute North.
Her defensive tenacity has become something teams need to game plan around — when the Trojans faced Whiteland a second time, the Warriors altered their press break specifically to limit Utterback’s effectiveness as an on-the-ball defender.
Thankfully for Center Grove, Utterback isn’t facing any lingering physical limitations. She says her minutes were restricted somewhat in her first game back but she’s been full go ever since.
The only thing lagging behind at all, if anything, has been her offense — Utterback noted that she’s had to be more selective with her shots as she tries to get her touch back — but she’s still found ways to be effective, scoring in double figures in three of five games since returning.
When she’s not scoring, Stuckmeyer says, Utterback has become an even more integral part of the offense than she was before her time off.
“I think she’s been able to see it where she can slow her mind down out on the court a little bit and kind of see what we’re looking for,” the coach said. “When she’s composed and a facilitator, the sky’s the limit for our team.”
One thing that the Trojans didn’t lose with Utterback off the floor was her contributions as a vocal leader. Always talkative on the court, she started to function as more of an assistant coach while on the sidelines, and getting that different perspective has made her commentary that much sharper in recent games.
“It taught me to be a leader off the floor, too,” Utterback said.
Missing more than a month of the season didn’t slow Emma Utterback down. A look at her statistical averages before and after her absence: