If you were to look up the definition of a “winner,” you might find a picture of senior guard Karlee Wilson dribbling a ball down the court for the Idaho women’s basketball team.
At least that’s the suggestion Vandal head coach Jon Newlee has for the owners of Merriam-Webster.
“You look that up in the dictionary and there should be a big ol’ picture of Karlee Wilson right there, that’s what I think,” Newlee said.
At 5 feet 4 inches, Wilson does not possess the stereotypical height of a collegiate basketball player. But that did not stop her from catching Newlee’s eye as an underclassman at Lewiston High School.
“The first thing that stood out to me was her toughness,” he said. “She was taking charges and diving on the floor. Even though she was young, she had great ball-handling abilities.”
Wilson’s standout play as a sophomore helped her to lead the Bengals to a state title in 2011 — a rare feat for the program. After receiving interest from Newlee, Wilson made the decision to commit to the University of Idaho before the start of her junior year.
“I came up to Moscow on an unofficial tour, and the next day I told him I wanted to come,” Wilson said. “There was some interest in other schools, but I knew I wanted to be close to home.”
Despite the stigma of committing to a program as a junior, Wilson said she enjoyed the ability to play without the pressure of impressing scouts. She led the Bengals to another state championship, while also earning first-team, all-state and all-league honors.
“The bar was raised higher, I think we definitely left a mark there,” Wilson said. “Our banners are still hanging in the gym.”
As a freshman with the Vandals, Wilson appeared to be in the mix for playing time as a key substitute, but then disaster struck. In a road matchup with Texas, Wilson went down with a knee injury that was later identified as an ACL tear.
“I feel like it kind of shaped who I am today because I had to go through that,” she said. “I pretty much had to learn how to run with my leg again. It was definitely eye-opening, I didn’t take anything for granted after that.”
Wilson watched from the sideline as Idaho emerged as the Western Athletic Conference champion, earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was obviously great watching my team, but I knew that I wanted the feeling of being out there on the court,” she said.
After months of rehab and recovery, Wilson got another chance to batter the hardwood as a sophomore. Her playmaking abilities and knowledge of the court allowed her to earn a starting spot for the final eight games of the year.
“She came in here and worked harder than anybody in practice, doing all the little things for us,” he said. “She was taking charges, getting those 50-50 balls and being a great defender. That was something we really needed at the time.”
As a junior, Wilson entered the 2015-2016 season as one of the most dominant rosters in Vandal history, with a starting lineup that included sharpshooter Mikayla Ferenz and future professional Ali Forde.
Idaho used its talent to earn a berth in the Big Sky championship against Idaho State, with Wilson going 11-of-12 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter to propel the Vandals to a 67-55 victory.
“We don’t win the championship if Karlee Wilson isn’t playing here,” Newlee said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have won without her leadership on the floor.”
Wilson said the experience of winning a conference championship could only be described as surreal, but her attention quickly shifted to fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“I watched it growing up all throughout high school,” Wilson said. “Knowing that I got to be a part of that was amazing.”
The Idaho guard adopted more of a leadership role during her senior season, providing advice for Ferenz and sophomore Taylor Pierce to help establish a strong backcourt for the future.
“I thought she kept the intensity level up every day in practice,” Newlee said. “In her own way, she was reminding the young players to work hard and do the things for the team that we need to be successful.”
Wilson graduates from the University of Idaho May 13, but Newlee said he expects her impact to be felt by the program for years to come.
“I hope some of our younger players use her as a model to understand how to overcome adversity and still have a great career like she had,” Newlee said. “She was a no-excuse winner because of all her hard work. Give me 15 Karlee Wilsons each year and I’ll coach until I’m 100.”
Josh Grissom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GoshJrissom