Taufa’s time has arrived with Indiana basketball

Milika Taufa knows exactly what Maiki Viela is feeling these days on the basketball court.

Not only do the former Lahainaluna High School state-championship teammates and friends keep in touch while in college – Taufa at Indiana, Viela at Gonzaga – the elder Taufa has been through precisely what Viela is experiencing right now.

Taufa, a 6-foot junior forward-center, has grown from nine appearances and 45 total minutes on the court as a freshman, to 22 games and 284 minutes last year, to 13 starts for the 9-4 Hoosiers this season.

Indiana won nine nonconference games for only the third time in the last three decades, but will still be underdogs in Big Ten Conference play, which opens on Thursday. Indiana was 15-44 in Taufa’s first two seasons.

Taufa currently leads the Hoosiers in rebounds at 7.9 per game – she had 14 boards in an 81-59 win over Illinois-Chicago on Monday – and she is ranked fifth in rebounding in the Big Ten.

She had 11 defensive rebounds against UIC and is second on the team with 11 blocked shots this season.

“The difference for me is I got more into shape and my defense continued,” she said in a phone interview Monday. “I get energized off my defense and then, like, it goes over to offense.”

Taufa said she has a chemistry with her fellow starters. Before for this year, she averaged 2.8 points per game, but this season she is averaging 5.2.

Rebounding, however, is where she is earning her scholarship.

“With the starting five, I know when one of them shoots, I know where to be sometimes,” she said.

As the Hoosiers struggled to just four Big Ten wins in her first two seasons, Taufa learned from the bench.

“In the beginning, I was young and I didn’t know how to use my strength,” she said. “But over the years I found out how to use my body, how to box out people. I’m short to be a center and forward, so I just had to be smart and be more physical.”

Things have clearly changed for the Hoosiers this season, their first under coach Curt Miller.

“He treats the team more free and finds what we like,” Taufa said.

Miller said his first impression of his center from West Maui was not great.

“I wondered how she was going to fit our system,” he said. “But when we started this season with the team, one of the things that jumped off the page for us was that Milika is a very smart basketball player. She has been there and been a tremendous rebounder for us and because of her basketball IQ, she has been efficient and effective in our offense.”

Miller’s uptempo approach is similar to Lahainaluna coach Todd Rickard, who led the Lunas to the 2010 state title, still the only Division I state hoops crown won by any Maui Interscholastic League team.

Taufa said she wondered if the winning would ever come in her time in Bloomington.

“I knew this program was still building,” she said. “I feel like now it is getting there.”

Miller said Taufa has been a major piece of the puzzle.

“We feel like we are really overachieving and Milika is a big part of that,” Miller said. “Even though we know who we are – we are not the most talented team – we found a way to win nine nonconference games, which puts us up in some rare air in Indiana (women’s) basketball history.”

Viela was named a first-team Parade All-American in 2011. A season before, the Lunas were unstoppable with Taufa rebounding, throwing outlet passes, and filling the lanes. However, in her first two seasons in Spokane, Wash., Viela has struggled to find the court, just as Taufa did.

She played in just 12 games last season for an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 team and has been in eight of 14 contests so far this year for the 10-4 Bulldogs. Viela has played a total of 106 minutes in her college career, but Taufa is in her corner.

“We Facebook, Twitter, call all the time,” Taufa said. “We just check up on each other, making sure we are staying humble, keep up in school, and see how her team is doing, just keep ourselves updated.”

Taufa knows that an impact season could be just around the corner for her former teammate.

“Me and her are in the same situation when I was a freshman and sophomore because there were more experienced juniors and seniors,” Taufa said. “So I know next year Maiki is going to play more because their point guard is a senior now, so I told her, like, ‘Next year, you have to step it up because it is your time.’ “

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com