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It first hit Dru Gylten that she was among some of the best college basketball players in the country last season while redshirting with an injury at the University of Utah.

That notion was not only reinforced this season when she appeared on the the court, especially in Pac-12 play, but it also told her that she belonged with the best.

The former St. Thomas More all-state guard has started all 17 games for the 21st-ranked Utes and she has dished out more assists than any other freshman in the nation.

Gylten said that it seems like every team they play in the Pac-12 has either one of the best players in the country, one of the best defenses or one of the best offenses. Three conference teams are ranked in the Top 10 — Oregon (fifth), Oregon State (sixth) and Stanford (ninth).

You can't blame her for being wide-eyed and enjoying herself.

“Yeah, I came from a small town in South Dakota and I have made it here to Utah, in the Pac-12,” she said almost in awe. “It is eye-opening that you are playing the best teams and the best players. But I like it. It motivates me to become better, to push myself, and I think that pushes our team as well.”

Gylten is one of three former Cavaliers teammates who are not only playing Division I basketball, but playing at a high level (Alexys Swedlund at fellow Pac-12 school Washington State and Ciara Duffy at the University of South Dakota).

St. Thomas More has won five straight Class A state titles under longtime head coach Brandon Kandolin and the Utes are off to their best start in a long time.

Gylten admits that she wasn’t expecting to come right in as a starter and have the success that she has achieved in her short time on the court.

Her role with Utah came much sooner than she expected and she credits her former coach and former high school.

“I think it all started in high school, being so successful at St. Thomas More and having a great coach there and great teammates who were successful in their college careers,” she said. “That has motivated me, leaving STM and coming to Utah. I grabbed that mentality of wanting to be successful and wanting to win games, wanting to be the best."

At the same time, her time at Utah was almost derailed before it began. Gylten suffered a torn ACL in the 2017 state semifinals her senior year. The rehabilitation basically lasted a full year before she was cleared to play last March.

It was the first time she had been injured and the first time she could only watch basketball from the sidelines.

“That’s a long time to think. You go through so many emotions,” she said. “One thing that I took in from being injured was how much support I had from my family, from St. Thomas More, from the coaches at Utah and from both teams’ players."

In retrospect, she believes what she went through was good for her.

“I just learned so much about me as a person, my body, and just the game of basketball. How something that you love so much was taken away from you and then given back. You want to give everything you have,” she said.

When the injury happened in the state semifinal game, there were some early, ‘oh no’ moments in her head as if she could lose her scholarship. But they were fleeting moments as her Utah coaches reassured her everything would work out.

Assistant coach Gavin Petersen was actually at that game in Brookings when the injury occurred.

“You hear about people getting hurt and the team doesn’t want them anymore because they can’t play,” she said. “But they gave me so much comfort in the fact that they still wanted me, the plan was the same. It was just delayed one year. At that moment I realized that I had picked the right place to come to."

The Utes are preparing to face California in conference play Friday. Through 17 games, Gylten is averaging 7.6 points a game, with a career high of 17 points against Brigham Young, along with a team-leading 107 assists (6.3 per game). She had 11 assists against Seattle University and a double-double her last time out against Colorado — 10 points and 10 assists.

She has had at least five assists in 14 of 17 games and she is ranked 10th overall in Division I. No other freshman in the country has as many assists.

“I have amazing teammates who are always willing to move without the ball. I can’t have an assist without them making the basket. I give a lot of the credit to them,” she said.

What could be even more impressive is that Gylten isn’t the starting point guard — senior Erika Bean is. She starts at the two guard position.

Her role at the two guard starts on defense, something she is well aware of coming from St. Thomas More, where defense always comes first.

“Just like at STM where we limited people with our amazing defense, that has carried over here at Utah,” she said. “It’s sharing the ball and getting people open; keeping other players occupied on offense and defense. It just comes down to playing basketball, moving for your teammates and getting them open, playing as a team.”

Gylten said that at STM she always played with scorers — Swedlund and Duffy in particular. During her senior year she took over the role of scoring more than passing and that has helped at Utah, although she still calls herself a passer first and a scorer second.

“If the coaches say anything it is, “Dru, you need to score more,’ so that is something I have been focusing on my freshman year,” she said. “I think that I have encouragement from my coaches and teammates to score more. It has helped me in some games. But our team at Utah is so versatile that everyone can score and everyone can pass. If teams take our best two players away, we have to score more. I’m comfortable with that role.”

The Utes were ranked 21st in the Associated Press Top 25 poll Monday, the first time they have been ranked since 2008. Their only loss to date was by two points to Arizona State.

“It’s always a goal to be ranked, but we really haven’t been focusing on it,” she said. “It’s more like playing every game the best that we can and hopefully the score will take of itself, which it has. It’s amazing to be ranked and it is something to be very excited and very proud about, but I think we have more goals to take of other than just being ranked.”

One of the Utes Pac-12 wins this season was against Swedlund and Washington State. Playing against her friend and former teammate was crazy, she said.

“We see each other in warm-ups, and it is like, ‘Wow, we once played with each other,’” she said. “At the same time once we step on the court we know we are on opposing teams and we are trying to make our team win. But off the court, it is still the same friendship that we had in high school. It’s so cool that both of us being from South Dakota are playing in the Pac-12.”

Gylten said she is in contact on a pretty regular basis with her former coach and STM senior Alex Kandolin. She follows as many of the Cavalier games as she can. Her younger brother Michael Gylten also plays for the St. Thomas More boys’ team.

“In my heart I always bleed blue, but here I have to bleed red too (Utah’s school color),” she said with a laugh.

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Sports Editor

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.