Nov. 18—Daejah Phillips hadn't entered high school the last time Hawaii topped the Big West Conference's preseason women's basketball poll.
Daejah Phillips hadn't entered high school the last time Hawaii topped the Big West Conference's preseason women's basketball poll.
But four state championships at Centennial High in Las Vegas provided lessons in rising to elevated expectations.
"For me, going to Centennial for four years, we always had a target on our back, " said Phillips, now the leading returning scorer for the defending Big West champion Rainbow Wahine.
"Everybody wants to come for us because we are No. 1, so we just have to stay together, stick together and play together and win games."
With Amy Atwell—UH's career 3-point record-holder and last season's Big West Player of the Year—now playing professionally in Australia after a stint in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks, Phillips is among the returnees primed for a more prominent role for the Wahine.
The 5-foot-10 guard earned the Big West Sixth Man of the Year award in the abbreviated 2020-21 season and was an all-conference honorable mention pick last season, when she averaged 10 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and led the team with 73 assists in her second freshman season.
After UH closed a landmark season with a loss to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Phillips went to work on expanding her game.
"After playing Baylor, it definitely opened my eyes, " Phillips said. "There are girls definitely faster, stronger and taller, which means I needed to work different on my game."
Her spring and summer to-do list included stretching her shooting range beyond the 3-point line, honing a pull-up jumper, "and I needed to learn how to use my body more in the offseason."
A post player in high school and more comfortable driving to the basket early in her college career, Phillips attempted just 40 3-pointers last season, connecting on 12.
She opened her sophomore season by draining a 3-pointer against Oregon State as part of a 12-point performance in a 61-60 loss to the Beavers. She added another early 3-pointer against Portland two days later, but went on the attack in hitting 10 of 14 shots from the field and going 4-for-5 from the free-throw line on her way to a career-high 25 points.
Her size can create matchup problems for opposing guards, and her ability to distribute on drives led to a team-high seven assists through two games.
Before establishing a 3-point presence, "Daejah could be guarded where someone would play off of her, " UH coach Laura Beeman said. "(Now ) they have to get up on her, and that allows her to use where she's really good, which is driving and kicking and playmaking.
"For her to grow as player just makes us better and it just shows her growth as a young woman."
Phillips finished last season second on the team with 35 steals and has eight so far this season. She returned as part of a deep and versatile group of Rainbow Wahine wing players.
Sophomore Olivia Davies and freshman Jovi Lefotu can shuffle between the backcourt roles.
Davies averaged 8.3 points per game last season and finished second on the team with 71 3-pointers. Lefotu, last season's Star-Advertiser All-State Player of the Year, made a striking first impression with a 20-point performance in UH's exhibition game against Hawaii Pacific.
Sophomore Meilani McBee returns as a 3-point specialist after hitting 70 on.414 shooting behind the arc last season.
Junior Ashley Thoms established herself as a defensive presence in the backcourt and started both games of UH's season-opening road trip. Graduate student McKenna Haire also provided a long-range threat in her 15 appearances last season before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Sophomore guards Eva Ongoongotau and Hallie Birdsong, a Kalani graduate, saw limited time off the bench last season.
UH opened the season by draining 12 3-pointers, with eight players hitting at least one against Oregon State.
"Amy obviously was a fantastic player and every coach dreams of having a player like Amy, " Beeman said after the game.
"A lot of times last year when Amy was on the floor, we would stand and watch. So I think it's a great testament to these kids that they worked and they moved. It's harder to scout when we have eight players that can hit 3s."