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Fremont’s Timea Gardiner stays true to self despite pressures of basketball recruiting stardom

By Patrick Carr - | Nov 20, 2021
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Fremont High senior Timea Gardiner practices with the girls basketball team Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Fremont High School in Plain City.
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Fremont High senior Timea Gardiner practices with the girls basketball team Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 at Fremont High School.
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Fremont's Timea Gardiner (30) takes the ball down the court while guarded by Bingham High's Sierra Lichtie (20) in the 6A girls basketball state championship game on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center at the University of Utah.

PLAIN CITY — A few years ago, the roster for Natalie Williams’ elite under-17 club basketball team had, as expected, a group of some of the best 16- and 17-year-old prep basketball players in the state of Utah.

Among them was a 13-year-old forward named Timea Gardiner.

“So I played four years up,” she said in an interview in February. Gardiner then shrugged. “I guess you could say I was decent.”

In another understatement, her father Andy added that Timea “held her own.”

People talked about Timea Gardiner before she even went to Fremont High. As a freshman, it was obvious to many she wasn’t an ordinary freshman.

“You could just tell her ceiling was off the charts,” Fremont coach Lisa Dalebout said in a January interview.

Now entering her senior season at Fremont, Gardiner’s a 6-foot-3 forward and has gone from that high-ceiling 13-year-old to the No. 6 ranked recruit in her class nationally. She’s an Oregon State signee, a four-year starter and one of the best prep basketball players to come from Utah.

Gardiner is and has always been smart, tough, athletic, a good rebounder and many other things coaches love. She’s also changed plenty.

“I feel like I’m more emotionally and mentally mature than I was my freshman year,” she said. “I feel like my freshman year, I was super hard on myself — I still am, but it’s to a point now where I’m like just move on, get over it.”

That transformation is what’s impressed Dalebout the most.

“Now she’s consistently in control, she knows herself a little bit more, and she knows how to get the most out of herself and, obviously, her game has transformed,” Dalebout said.

Gardiner’s the type of positionless basketball player who can impact the game several ways, but underneath the front-facing talent and recruiting accolades is a humble, reserved, confident and private person who’s grateful for her success and who also found the status of being a high-profile college basketball recruit to be a blessing and a curse.

POSITIONLESS HUMILITY

Gardiner counts her favorite pro players as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, all five whom are and were known as players who could impact games all over the floor.

Gardiner’s biggest impact is seen in the post, but she works on everything. Versatility is her goal, she says.

Teams will game plan specifically for her because of how many ways she can impact the game and oftentimes, Gardiner’s been good enough to play well in spite of extra attention.

Even after her best games, such as the ones where she scores 20-plus points, the first words out of Gardiner’s mouth are about how it wouldn’t be possible without her teammates.

Everything is about team success to her.

With a 28-point lead against Davis in a game last season, Gardiner was sitting on the bench and very much engaged with what was happening on the floor, calling out screens and open shooters and, in the fourth quarter, being the first one to celebrate when Callee Hill banked in a 3-pointer.

Gardiner has been one of the best free-throw shooters in the state the past two seasons, shooting 137 for 157 (87.3%). She’s professed how she can’t get to the foul line without teammates playing well enough to attract their own defensive attention in the first place.

Gardiner’s naturally in touch with the reality that Fremont’s host of Division-I players the past three seasons have helped open up the court for her. The other place her humility comes from is her parents.

“My parents both keep me super grounded to know where you come from, know that there’s someone else working just as hard as you somewhere else, keep your head down and stay humble and hungry,” she said. “Don’t take it for granted.”

Both parents were college athletes at Hawaii Pacific University; Andy played basketball and Cory played volleyball.

They moved to Europe after college where Andy played professional basketball first in his native England, and then in Belgium.

Timea was born in England, has dual citizenship and was well-traveled internationally even before she was selected to the 2019 USA Basketball U-16 team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina.

Her experience with USA Basketball was something she called amazing and a privilege, which didn’t quite hit her until the national anthem played before the Americans’ first game.

Had it not been for a choice years earlier, she wouldn’t have been in that arena with Team USA in the first place.

EARLY START IN THE GAME

Timea was pretty good at soccer as a kid. Her father said Timea could’ve played soccer in college had she stuck with it. When Timea was about 12 years old, she decided to focus on basketball.

Then as the 13-year-old on the under-17 NWBA team playing nationally on the Adidas circuit, she entered the world of college basketball recruiting.

“I don’t think I knew what I was getting into initially. My first conversation was with Tara VanDerveer at Stanford, so that was kind of overwhelming,” she said.

Gardiner was grateful and stunned at the number of college basketball coaches — dozens — who offered her scholarships. It was the who’s who of college basketball recruiting her: the Pac 12, Big 12, UConn, Louisville, etc.

It eventually became too much.

“We didn’t entertain every college,” Cory Gardiner said. “To protect her.”

When Timea officially signed with Oregon State this month, many were grateful the recruiting process was over. Nobody was more relieved than Timea herself, and that boils down to her personality.

“I don’t like being center of attention so it was kind of hard for me to — and I’m an introvert naturally, so I don’t like talking to a lot of people that I don’t know very well, so it was hard for me to kind of open up,” she said. “My parents are always like, well my mom especially, ‘You have to talk to them!’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to!’ So yeah, it was interesting.”

People unfamiliar with college recruiting usually don’t see how much time it can occupy. Plenty of times, Timea had multiple phone calls per day with coaches and several per week on top of schoolwork, basketball and whatever everyday life events were going on.

In another interview in October, Timea didn’t mince words: she hated some of the recruiting process.

“People wish they were a high recruit, but it’s also like a curse and a blessing,” Gardiner said. “It’s a lot of people talking to you and luckily, the way I was recruited, I was very selective with who I let recruit me … I didn’t entertain everybody and that helped me decide who to choose, but it’s hard. It’s like a job keeping up with everybody.”

Last winter, she settled on three finalists: Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA. Gardiner loved pretty much everything about Oregon State.

“They’re very family-oriented, which is kind of how it is at Fremont. But I would say a bunch of the girls are so nice and the camaraderie that they have is so, like — you can’t really beat that, and (head coach) Scott (Rueck) is an amazing person,” Timea said.

Oregon State’s coaches knew her well enough and knew her misgivings about the recruiting process and as such, they backed off in a way.

“The way they recruited me, it’s not really necessarily hands-on; they gave me my space, which I really appreciate,” Gardiner said.

Another thing she loves is that fans pack Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum for women’s basketball.

OSU averaged a school-record 5,902 fans per home game in the 2019-20 season, busting the previous school record of 5,457 set in 2018-19.

Corvallis and the surrounding area pay attention to women’s basketball and Gardiner found out firsthand on her official campus visit in September.

“People know who you are and it’s really cool. Some people I met were like, ‘Oh I know who you are,’ and I’m like, I haven’t even stepped on campus yet. It was kind of a crazy experience,” she said.

It surprised her, since she tried to be private about her process.

Regardless of sport, big-time college recruits typically update their social media profiles with which schools have offered scholarships or which schools are considered “finalists” for signing day.

Gardiner had more superlatives than most recruits in the country regardless of sport, but looking at her social media pages, there wouldn’t be any signs of those things.

“I have confidence in myself. I don’t need to boast about what I’m doing, people honestly don’t care,” she said. “People don’t care what offers you’re getting, or what you’re doing on Sundays or if you’re doing handles or doing a drill, people don’t care. So why should I post something that? It’s honestly private information and I don’t like people knowing about my stuff.”

Eventually, it was actually a dead giveaway on social media that Oregon State was the favorite. Many times, one can look at a player’s social media profile and take an educated guess where they’ll commit by looking at who follows whom, what tweets the player likes, etc.

In 2017, Kristina Bigsby, a PhD candidate in information science at the University of Iowa, developed a mathematical model that could predict with 70% accuracy where a high school football player would commit for college football, according to the Washington Post, based on the player’s social media activity.

The majority of posts Timea Gardiner interacted with on Twitter? Oregon State women’s basketball.

“I kind of did that on purpose,” she said. “I did like this silent commitment and it kind of got a lot of controversy on the internet. People were tagging me in my tweets putting Stanford’s statistics against Oregon State’s and their record, ‘Stats speak for itself, Stanford no-brainer,’ and I’m like ‘OK, chill out,'” she said said.

She was pretty content with her choice, so much so she verbally committed months before her official visit, setting her future on an enviable path.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Gardiner’s basketball future may include playing at Oregon State, earning a degree in a STEM field, playing pro basketball in the WNBA and overseas, and eventually becoming an Olympian.

The past couple years have helped her realize how much she loves basketball. Gardiner took a break from basketball for most of the summer of 2020, one reason being that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the club tournaments.

Gardiner has normally taken breaks each summer for the sake of physical rest. The one in 2020 had more meaning.

“From being a top recruit and having all the pressures and the expectations from people, that’s why I took a break in 2020 — I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for the other people, so it took me a second to realize, OK I need to get my stuff together and figure out why I’m actually doing,” she said. “I figured it out, went back, took a break, fell in love with it again.”

And now, she has unfinished business.

Halfway through the Silverwolves’ unbeaten 2020-21 season, she grabbed a rebound in a game against Weber and landed awkwardly.

The landing jarred some cartilage in her knee loose. She had microfracture surgery and missed the rest of the season. Gardiner watched from the sideline as Fremont went 26-0 in Utah to win the 6A state championship and qualify for the Geico Nationals tournament.

Gardiner was happy for her teammates and sad she couldn’t be on the floor to experience it.

She recovered in time to play some tournaments this summer, but she’s had nagging injuries ever since then including a hamstring injury, shin splints, a knee tweak and a torn hip flexor, she said.

Gardiner only got cleared to return from the hip flexor injury in late October and this year, she’s one of three returning starters for a team that’s still supposed to be one of the best in the state, but a team that nonetheless will have a different look to it.

So even though she’s already accomplished a lot in her career at Fremont, Gardiner has motivation to finish strong.

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