Paige Crozon has emerged as one of the best forwards on the West Coast, and a driving force behind Utah’s resurgence

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Crozon has established herself as one of the best forwards in the Pac-12. (Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics)

So it’s as difficult to describe Paige Crozon, a 6–1 junior wing on the Utah women’s basketball team, as it has become for opposing coaches to find a way to stop her.

Counter Crozon with size, say, in the guise of a steady post presence, and she’ll attack off the bounce or step out for a long-range jumper. Use an alternate approach, and Crozon will head down to the block and use her deft touch to savvily score. When all else fails, she’ll put her head down, drive hard, and get to the free throw line, where she usually hits.

But first, that promised description: here’s a couple of takes from two of the people who know her best. First, Lynne Roberts, Utah’s first-year head coach:

“Paige is fearless, and she’s also the sweetest and kindest human being you’ll ever meet.”

Then:

“Growing up, I looked up to Paige.”

This second quote comes from Crozon’s sister, Taylor, who just so happens to be two years older. Yes, the Paige effect is that real. Watch her in a game, note how her far-reaching statistical contributions are matched by the times she rushes to a teammate’s aid, chuckle to yourself that it is impossible not to become a fan.

Part and parcel of the Crozon narrative. This ability to inspire equally through athletic achievement (name a sport, and she probably won a championship in it while growing up in Humboldt, Saskatchewan) and good deeds. In 2011, she was named a Junior Citizen of the Year for the Humboldt area.

In their youth, the Crozon sisters could usually be found playing a sport. “We’d always go to the basketball court together,” Taylor says, “and once Paige got good, we’d play 1 on 1, but she’d have to score 7 points to win. I’d only have to score 5 — and she’d still win.”

When they worked out, Paige would come up with new wrinkles: like, running up and down those same courts…while dragging tires behind them. “People still have memories of driving past and seeing us there every day,” says Taylor, who hooped at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, before joining the basketball team’s coaching staff. “It comes with being in a small town. Everyone knew Paige, and knew about whatever she was doing, athletically. Her personality really stands out.”

This season for Utah, the legend continues to grow. Even when she endured a difficult home stretch against the Oregon schools in mid-January, mustering 20 points on 5-of-26 shooting, Roberts was told by an opposing coach that Crozon was one of the best forwards in the Pac-12. This was due to her overall effect: she had three blocks in one game, three steals in the other.

All this, during a week when she was fighting the flu. “She couldn’t practice, and she had trouble eating much,” Roberts says. But Crozon doesn’t bring this up when she’s asked about those two games: she’d rather focus on what Utah did as a collective group. Namely, moving forward.

That’s been a theme of a season in which the Utes have defied the dreary prognostications that picked them to finish 11th in the conference. Crozon has been hovering around a double-double average, while asserting herself as one of the most versatile forces in America.

“She’s had such a great year that opposing coaches now realize how valuable she is to our team,” says Roberts. “When she plays well, we do well. And she isn’t overachieving, or doing this through smoke and mirrors — she’s as good as her numbers would indicate.”

Even with defenses now actively seeking to deny Crozon the ball, Roberts says that Utah will keep going back to that well. “The thing that makes Paige really good is that she’s tough as nails, both physically and mentally,” Roberts says. “Some players can’t handle a gameplan being set against them; Paige doesn’t care. She’s fearless every time.”

And she’s a leader—albeit in her own, Paige-like way. “She’s not the type that will get in your face, poke you in the chest, and tell you to knock it off,” says Roberts. “She’ll just work harder than anyone on the floor, and be totally positive and encouraging while doing it. And there’s nothing Pollyanna about it; she’s just honest and constructive.

“Off the floor, she’s just kind. She’ll ask you how your day is. She’s incredibly mature for a college kid. Most are just learning how to think about others; Paige is way ahead of the game in that sense. She’s a puts-others-first type person, and it’s pretty impressive.”

Roberts began to get a glimpse of Crozon’s effect this past summer, as she prepared for her first season at the helm of the Utes. She knew about the injuries that had inundated this program in recent seasons, scuppering any hopes for success. She figured, and rightly so, that the team was sick of hearing about those injuries. They wanted to get to work. So, Roberts set about implementing a rigorous series of summer workouts. She incorporated an entirely new nutrition system.

No one fell more perfectly into the rejuvenation narrative than Crozon, who missed the entire 2013–14 season while recovering from a head injury suffered during a practice the previous spring. When she returned in ‘14–15, she was limited to operating on the perimeter. By the time that season wrapped, it had been almost two years since she felt she’d been able to show what she was capable of on a basketball court.

That was down to the injury, and the effects it produced. There’s no set protocol for a head injury, Crozon notes, and doctors struggled to reach a consensus about potential long-term effects she might face. On July 27, 2014, she received a cortisone shot in the back of her neck.

If it seems remarkable that Crozon can recall the exact date of this shot, consider: this was relief from near-constant pain that had plagued her for the better part of a year. Concussion symptoms, headaches, spasms shooting down her neck and back. “I didn’t know how severe it was while I was going through it, but now that I think back on it, it was pretty tough,” she says. “Everything was hindered for me: schoolwork, watching TV, let alone playing basketball. It was a really challenging year.”

Says Taylor, “The toughest thing was seeing Paige, who growing up had been the most vibrant and easy-going person on the basketball court, have to take a step back. She didn’t seem to be like herself, and it was really difficult to watch. This year, she’s back to herself. She feels good, and she’s playing well.”

Crozon has received four cortisone shots to date. Her last shot came four months ago, before the current season. She’s feeling good, and that in turn has allowed her to get back to her bull-in-a-china-shop way of attacking the basket. It’s almost boneheaded, this approach, she says with a chuckle.

This past summer, Roberts made a point of not watching film from from previous seasons. She didn’t want to color her judgment of the returning Utes players. Once official practice got rolling, though, Roberts soon realized of Crozon: This kid can attack. “Swat her shot out of bounds, she doesn’t care: she’ll go right back at you and beat you,” says Roberts, before adding, “Once games started, I think a 3-year old could’ve noticed that this kid is a great player, and a matchup nightmare.”

It comes down to those early years in Humboldt, says Taylor, when Paige played on boys’ teams. In order to hang, she couldn’t help but become fearless. “She did everything for those teams,” says Taylor, “and that’s perfect for Lynne’s system, now.”

Speaking of perfect: that mindset, too. This is how a program shifts into the kind of gear that spells sustained success. So often this season, broadcasters have spoken about what it will be once Roberts recruits “her players” to Utah. Well, Crozon provides a good counterpoint to that argument. You won’t find a more “Lynne Roberts-type player”. An indefatigable desire to win, coupled with a selflessness bolstered by that year on the brink.

Yes, Roberts is proud of the continual defiance of expectations, but the signature theme of this season will be the Utes’ inability to believe they are ever out of a game. So despite a five-game losing streak in the teeth of conference play, they knew they’d be all right. Take Crozon’s reaction after that home stand against the Oregon schools. Let’s get back to work. The most recent manifestation of the motto: a weekend sweep of Colorado during which Crozon concocted her standard sequences of clutch.

Hard not to be confident when this kid’s leading your team out onto the floor.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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