March 16, 2022 

Amy Atwell powers Hawaii to tournament appearance

The Rainbow Wahine are back in the NCAA Tournament

Amy Atwell always knew that once she finished her college career at the University of Hawaii, she wanted to go home to Australia and play professional basketball. But as her time at Hawaii slowly comes to an end, her aspirations might have gotten slightly bigger.

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The Rainbow Wahine defeated the UC Irvine Anteaters, 58-49, on Saturday evening to clinch the Big West Conference title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. After the victory, Anteaters head coach Tamara Inoue stated that she thought Atwell was ready for the WNBA.

Playing in the WNBA wasn’t always something Atwell pictured. After a stellar season as a graduate student putting up a career-best 17.4 points per game and 6.7 rebounds, though, the best women’s professional league in the world might not be out of the realm of possibility.

“That’s been something in the background my whole career. Ever since I came here I knew my ultimate goal was to go back home and play professionally, and that is definitely still one of my options,” Atwell told The Next. “But I think this year has gone better than I expected. And it’s kind of potentially opened up more doors for me as well.”

It’s hard not to picture Atwell finding success at the next level. The game of basketball has become more perimeter-oriented, and Atwell certainly has the tools to fit right in. She can shift between power forward and center and her offensive arsenal fits exactly what teams are looking for.

She’s able to face up and put the ball on the floor and put pressure on the defense by attacking the rim. She can draw contact and get to the free-throw line where she shoots 85.1 percent. She has range out to the three-point line where she can face up, catch and shoot and knock down step-back three-pointers.

Atwell wasn’t always such a versatile offensive threat. She recalls arriving on campus as a freshman and not being much more than a three-point shooter.

“My first few years playing I was pretty one-dimensional. I always had a good three-point shot but outside of that if you took that away I couldn’t really do much else,” Atwell said. “If I did want to go to the next level and keep improving and helping my team, I had to expand my game. That was purely through putting in the work off the court in the offseason and developing that ball-handling and those moves. It was always something I knew I had to do, it was just a matter of if I was going to do it and when.”

The work Atwell put into her game has certainly paid off. She redshirted her freshman year, but she gradually became a constant in Hawaii’s rotation. In her first three years, she came off the bench and won the Big West Sixth Player of the Year Award during the 2019-20 season. She was second on the team in scoring that year at 10.6 points per game while shooting 45 percent from three-point range.

It wasn’t until last season that she became a full-time starter en route to being named to the Big West All-Conference Second Team. This season, she broke through to the All-Conference First Team and was named the MVP of the conference tournament.

But perhaps the biggest area of her improvement has been her leadership. As the longest-tenured player on the roster, it just seemed natural that Atwell would take on more leadership responsibilities. It wasn’t a role that she was always sure about, but it’s one that she’s grown into and embraced.

“I’m not the most vocal person on the court sometimes, or even off the court. I’m more as a lead by example and kind of do as I do. It kind of was always a natural progression. I’ve always been not really a vocal leader but definitely an actions leader and I’m quite comfortable with that kind of thing,” Atwell said. “I had awesome leaders in my first couple of years to kind of look up to and follow by example…I was able to kind of analyze their leadership style and pick what I liked and what I didn’t like…My role has evolved a lot.”

Atwell did reach some major career milestones this season. She etched her name in the Hawaii history books in scoring and three-point shooting. In a win over Cal State Bakersfield in January, Atwell eclipsed the 1,000 point mark, becoming the 23rd player in school history to reach that milestone.

In a win over UC Riverside during the Big West Tournament, Atwell became the school’s all-time leader for made three-point shots in a season (68). She’s had an illustrious career at Hawaii and has transformed herself into the team’s go-to player.

But despite all of that, there was one thing missing from Atwell’s resume: an NCAA Tournament appearance. The last time the Rainbow Wahine made the tournament was in 2016, before Atwell arrived on campus. There have been some close calls like in 2019 when Hawaii had a double-digit lead over UC Davis in the conference championship game only to watch it all slip away in the fourth quarter.

This season, Atwell wasn’t about to let that happen. In the title-clinching game against UC Irvine, she scored 11 of her 13 points in the second half to help power the team to the big dance. Over the last several years Atwell has been on a few talented teams, but she feels like this season everything just fell into place.

“In 2019…I think it was kind of just about experience at that point. None of us had been there before and we kind of didn’t know how to handle it,” Atwell said. “This year we had a super young and inexperienced team as well but I think a lot of my teammates have had and found that success in high school; a lot of them have won high school state championships and stuff like that…We just had a super talented group this year and it kind of all just clicked on the court.”

And their reward for getting to the tournament for the first time in six years? A date with the No. 2 seeded Baylor Bears and the potential No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft in NaLyssa Smith. To add to that, a No. 15 seed has never won a tournament game since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Atwell knows Hawaii has a daunting task ahead of them, but it’s one they’re looking forward to.

“We’re not expected to win, there’s no pressure on us. We can come out as underdogs, we’re not supposed to win so we have nothing to lose really,” Atwell said. “I think that is something we’re gonna definitely feed off of. Baylor is an extremely good team and we’re going to have to play almost a perfect game to stick with them. But nothing is ever impossible.”

Whatever may happen on Friday, and wherever Atwell’s journey takes her after college, one thing is for sure. She’ll always look back on her time at Hawaii with fond memories.

“There’s not really any words to describe it, there’s been the ups and the downs. The lows have been pretty, pretty bad, but not as bad as the highs. I guess I would say it’s been a roller coaster and definitely worth it,” Atwell said. “To see my progression and look back where I was five, six years ago and see where I am now is kind of the biggest reward in itself…The biggest thing I’ll look back and reflect upon is how living in Hawaii and everything and all the people I’ve come across has kind of shaped who I am.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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