Years ago, in a secluded pocket of Hawaii’s biggest island, the Galdeira brothers played with their favorite toy.

Which, for Zechariah, Jacob, Elijah and Joel, just so happened to be their little sister, Lia.

As the youngest, Lia didn’t have much say in the matter. And like many sibling rivalries, where older and younger forces combine, it often ended in tears for the latter. For Lia, the saline spilled for 12 years. But then something resolved within her, became like iron. OK, I’m going to fight back now.

She poured herself into any athletic event she could find, and thrived. Basketball courts. Football fields. Ask anyone who knows her, and they’ll tell you that Lia loves basketball, but man, was she good at football growing up. She played Pop Warner for two years, at record-breaking pace. When she entered high school, she wanted to play for the junior varsity team, but her parents stepped in and offered advice.

“Stay focused on this game of basketball,” they told her. “It’s going to take you somewhere.”

As she recounts these humbling, tumbling beginnings, Galdeira stands just beyond the designated media room at Seattle’s Key Arena, thousands of miles away from her beloved home of Waimea. It’s March, and the 2014 Pac-12 Conference tournament was in full sway. Washington State has been in fantastic form.

At the mention of her brothers, Galdeira can’t suppress a chuckle. On the facial expression spectrum, she always ticks toward joviality. There was a point where they wouldn’t let her play basketball with them anymore. She’d become that good. Now, she can’t help but marvel at how her brothers molded her into the person and the player she is today.

Namely, one of college basketball’s best-kept secrets, the jet-quick guard with the jet-black hair tied tightly in a ponytail. Coiled. Such a fitting descriptor.

Washington State, Wazzu, is on the long road to prominence, and they continued to take steps at the conference tournament. When Galdeira first spoke to SLAM, she was minutes removed from a thrilling takedown of Cal, a Final Four team in ’13 and the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 field, in the quarterfinals.

A little over a week before this, Wazzu had lost a heartbreaker in overtime to these same Bears at Haas Pavilion. As they left the Bay Area, there was a profound sentiment that they hadn’t adequately taken care of business.

“I feel like as a team, we just got tired of losing,” Galdeira says. “Every one of us knew that we were better than what we were doing on the court—and off the court. We’ve got girls who love to argue, love to yell at each other, but at one point in the season it was like, ‘Dude, we’re not gonna win individually, we need to seriously get it together.’”

In Seattle, the 5-11 dynamo finished with 28 points against Cal, which becomes a bit more impressive when you consider that some 24 hours prior, Galdeira’d gone volcanic on Oregon.

When the dust had settled on a 107-100 victory over the Ducks, Galdeira’s stat line read: 31 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. It was one of the finest performances ever seen from a player in Pac-12 tourney history.

This game is downright electric. Galdeira possesses consummate rhythm, flow and feel. She can light up from deep, but is most effective with the ball in her hands, top of the key, ready to blow past a sorry defender and get to the rim. Last season, more than a fifth of her 611 points came from the foul line.

Her arrival in Pullman two years ago has coincided with a surge. Wazzu’s 17 wins last season were its most since ’95-96. An NIT bid marked the first post-season appearance since ’91. They were just a few wins away from the NCAA Tournament.

It was the way they got there. A huge non-conference win at Nebraska in November—nobody wins at Nebraska. A 5-0 start in Pac-12 play.

Then, the near-withering ebb in mid-season, followed by thrilling flow. Galdeira at the top of the key during that late-season conference game at Cal, the clock running down, seconds removed from her layup that tied the game. The way she demanded that ball, then the confident dribble. She missed, the game went to OT, the Bears won.

When she hurt her left wrist just over four minutes into the Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Oregon State. She came back—of course she did—but she wasn’t at full strength, and the Cougs weren’t the same. After the loss, she took it harder than anyone. “She felt like it was all her fault,” says Wazzu associate head coach Brian Holsinger.

But that fiery spirit is coupled with a breathtaking composure. This is just a game, Galdeira tells you. You win, you lose, you move on. “My brothers made me strong,” she says. “They prepared me to not be scared of anything.”

That includes the ability to stare her game straight in the face. Faced against such a glare, her shortcomings can’t help but flinch and expose themselves. Then, more work poured in to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Well, for Galdeira it’s really just play. Sometimes, Holsinger jokes, you have to kick her out of the gym.

Galdeira averaged 18.5 points in ’13-14, second on the team behind Tia Presley’s 19.0. They became the first Wazzu teammates in history to earn All-Pac-12 honors. Galdeira’s 80 steals ranked second in conference, her 71 assists second on the team.

This thing’s just getting started. And oh man, you know it’s gonna be fun.

Growing up in Waimea, Galdeira learned that there were two things you could always rely upon: family and the beach.

So when Washington State assistant coaches began contacting her, she rarely responded. She was always off somewhere. Maybe practice, maybe school, maybe lounging with friends on the sand. But there was a coach who wasn’t going to lose this recruit. June Daugherty was rebuilding a program, and she needed a spark like Galdeira.

Wait.

That doesn’t do this job justice. What Daugherty is doing might best be construed as miracle work. In spring 2007, she’d left the urban pitter-patter (not just rain) of Seattle and headed east for Pullman’s scenic sprawl. She’d been let go by Washington, despite posting nine winning seasons out of her 11 on the job.

In ’06-07, just before Daugherty’s arrival, the Cougs lost their last 18 games. It had been a decade since they’d broken .500. Her first August on the job, she held open tryouts. The only specifications: You needed to be a registered Wazzu student, had a physical in the last six months and could provide proof of insurance. In her first four seasons in the Palouse, Daugherty won just 32 games.

But she had a vision, and a staff that shared it.

Then, this player surfaced.

Rodney Cavaco, a guidance counselor at Aiea High School, in Oahu, sent tape of Galdeira to Washington State. Cavaco had coached Galdeira for Team Aloha, an all-star team that traveled to the Arizona Elite Tournament in spring, 2010. Holsinger’s first reaction, when he watched Galdeira on the screen?

Holy Cow. She’s really good.

Cavaco told the Wazzu staff that during the July club basketball circuit, Galdeira would play for the Hawaiian Stingrays, but they wouldn’t be in the top divisions of tournaments. That kept interest at a premium. It also piqued Daugherty’s interest. She sent Holsinger to check out a tournament in Oregon, where the Stingrays were playing. “He walked in the gym, watched for about two minutes and went ‘Oh my goodness,” Daugherty says. “He immediately called Mike (Daugherty, June’s husband and Cougars assistant coach).”

Mike Daugherty was at another tournament, in Las Vegas, but Holsinger told him to drop everything and catch the next flight to the Northwest. Fly in here, dude, and see what I’m seeing.

A connection became forged, and slowly but surely, they began to turn the tide in Galdeira’s recruitment. This wasn’t tick a box if you’re still interested in our program kind of stuff. It was, “‘We want you, how are you doing, how is school, I’m going to come and check in on class,'” says Galdeira.

That last one took Galdeira aback. No way they’d come all the way to Kealakekua, where she attended Konawaena High School. Only, sure enough, one day she peeked down the hallway and saw Holsinger and fellow Cougs assistant Ashley Grover checking in on her class.

“I was like, Whaaat? This is crazy! I think I gotta keep with them,” says Galdeira.

“It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to develop a relationship,” says Holsinger. “They’re surfing, playing hoops, constantly busy. But I spent a lot of time trying to connect.”

Trust was paramount, and Holsinger accepted that that bond couldn’t be built overnight. He attended Galdeira’s track and field practices. He spoke about how, at Wazzu, Galdeira would be part of a family. It wasn’t lip service. “Family and trust are two things that we do well,” Holsinger says. “I think that was attractive.”

Holsinger counted upon extra help from the Wazzu family. Ken Low, father of Derek, a former star guard on the men’s basketball team, knew Galdeira’s family. That was huge.

A visit from Daugherty, on top of another from Holsinger, sealed the deal. “June came out and wanted to know more about the family, about us,” says Phillip Galdeira, Lia’s father. “She made the extra effort.”

During that trip, Daugherty watched Phillip, a musician, play the ukulele. He only had three strings on his instrument that night, instead of the standard four, but it didn’t matter. He played for two hours.

Galdeira’s campus visit was mere formality. “I felt like I’d known them forever,” she says. “I committed right then and there.”

***

There was this other player the Cougars wanted to get, a player Galdeira would not go to college without.

It didn’t hurt that Dawnyelle Awa, the best friend in question, just so happened to be the reigning Player of the Year in Hawaii. (Galdeira nabbed three state POTY awards during high school.)

There may not be a person in this world who understands Galdeira better than Awa.

They began playing together as middle schoolers for the same club basketball team. Then, they became the stuff of legend at the Hawaii prep level.

Galdeira had moved across the island from Waimea to attend Konawaena. She lived with Awa, whose parents coach the boys and girls varsity teams at the high school. Galdeira only saw her family a couple times a month. “It was really hard,” Galdeira says. “Workouts, class, every single day it was rough. I would be up all night missing my family.”

But she’d made her decision. Her mind was made up. “Nothing was going to stop me,” Galdeira says.

The strength of her dream certainly helped. So did three state championships. Since they first began playing together, Galdeira and Awa had spoken of replicating that success at the collegiate level.

They call each other ‘Sis’ on and off the court. They’re inseparable. One zigs, the other one zags. “When I grew up, it was always my brothers protecting me,” says Galdeira. “Now I’m like, (Dawny’s) protector.

“I can’t even describe the feeling with Dawny. We started off playing against each other for maybe a year, and ever since then, we felt this…I don’t know what it was, but once we started playing with each other, no one could stop us. It was crazy. At times, we weren’t even trying, and our minds were just talking to each other.”

After every win in high school, they’d sit and say they couldn’t wait to do it at the next level. “She’s like a sister I never had,” says Awa. “And I have a sister! You don’t find those everywhere. She reads my mind all the time.”Galdeira’s family considers Awa a niece. And vice versa. That title is borne of respect, Phillip Galdiera explains.

Daugherty was looking for a point guard in that 2012 class, and after scouting Awa, she decided she fit the bill. “Lia catches the eye instantly, but you’ve got to watch Awa a bit more to see where her value comes in,” says Holsinger. “She’s so smart. From the beginning, we liked them both.”

Remember Holsinger’s trips to watch Galdeira in track and field? He did the same to watch Awa play volleyball.

In her first two seasons in Pullman, Awa has compiled 183 assists. Many are of the thrilling variety: Daugherty swears you can see pool-table spin sometimes. Galdeira always knows exactly where those passes are headed.

After that win over Oregon in Seattle, Daugherty said, “Awa is the straw that stirs the drink.”

Which Holsinger takes a step further. “Awa is kind of the unsung hero on our team,” he says.

***

When Galdeira speaks now, it’s over the phone from Pullman. Does she have some time for an interview?

“Yeah, I have a couple minutes,” she says, before adding, “maybe two-and-a-half or three.”

This summer, after almost a year’s worth of continuous basketball, Galdeira had some time to relax. In June 2013, after her freshman year, Galdeira was a late addition to the U19 Team USA tryouts in Colorado Springs, CO, ahead of that summer’s World Championships in Lithuania. She didn’t make that team, but felt she should have.

There was no time to mope—not that she’d need it. She came back for summer school and workouts. In August, Wazzu went on a European tour that included stops in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. When they returned stateside, it was time to begin preparing for the ’13-14 season.

So it was nice, this time, to have a little break.

But not too long; soon, Galdeira was joining her fellow Cougs for sessions with strength coach David Lang, she was planning meals with director of sports nutrition Lindsay Brown.

She continued making adjustments on the court. Strengthening her finishing ability with her left hand; dropping floaters off the bounce. Having a quicker first step on defense. Rebounding. Getting her team involved.

“People learned real fast that it’s impossible to stop her,” says Holsinger. “So they started forcing her left, and we worked on that. We worked on her decision making, which she’s really improved.”

Trust comes more easily now. Unsurprisingly, it has elevated Galdeira’s game. She has a better understanding of when to unleash her HAM-ness, which resembles a turbo-charged power-up in a video game.

Bang. She’s blown past you off the bounce. Bang. She’s dropped a three in your eye on the break. Bang. She’s jumped a passing lane for a steal and pushed ahead for an easy two.

“She’s absolutely fearless,” says Holsinger. “You never want to take that away from her. But there are times when you need to tone that down and make good decisions. She’s learned to do that, how to pick when to gamble.”

This summer, at Wazzu’s elite camp, Daugherty invited several former WNBA coaches to evaluate Galdeira’s game. Their analysis mostly involved skill work that needed improvement. Now, Holsinger sits down with Galdeira and runs through tape. This is what it takes to become the first Hawaiian to grace the WNBA. “The higher you go, everyone’s athletic, so fundamentals matter more and more,” says Holsinger.

Galdeira is more than willing to add the extra coursework. She can’t wait for winter—bring on the snow. It reminds her of Mauna Kea, the fabled peak of her island home that often wears a powdery cap, too. When she coached at Washington, Daugherty had a player named Giuliana Mendiola, who was the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a junior. “She always knew the clock, always knew the time and score,” says Daugherty. “She could play every position on the floor, and she wanted the ball in her hands. You get maybe one or two of those players in 30 years of coaching.”

About that second…

When Awa is asked to describe Galdeira as a player, she uses ‘athletic’ three times in the same sentence. “She’s just like her brothers,” says Awa. “That’s what makes her ‘Lia.'”

The scary thing? Daugherty attested to it. Galdeira is more athletic than Mendiola.

And isn’t Galdeira going to be a junior?

***

The Cougars have made waves for some high-scoring affairs, perhaps most notably that thriller against Oregon last season. But Holsinger and the coaching staff know that if a true jump is to be made this season, it will be keyed by improved defensive effort.

Which comes like breathing for Galdeira.

Back in Hawaii, playing for Awa’s mother, Bobbie, Galdeira learned the importance of defense. She knows it wins championships. She has the rings to prove it. Now she’s on a mission to stamp something indelible into Pac-12 lore. That means pouring herself into this process in Pullman, the quintessential college town.

It’s hard not to get excited about where the Cougs can go this season. Four starters are back, including Presley, who’s now a senior and even further removed from the ACL tear that prematurely ended her sophomore season. Daugherty marvels when she mentions that Presley looks even more athletic now. Taylor Edmonson, another junior guard, was sensational in that 76-72 win at No. 10 Nebraska (the Cougars hit 12 threes) before suffering, as Daugherty put it, “a plethora of concussions.” She couldn’t practice during that span, and she lost a lot of her timing. But as the season neared its end, she rediscovered her bounce. Oregon certainly felt it, to the tune of 14 points and 4-7 from three.

Seven freshmen enter the fold this season, two of whom hail from an island in the Pacific.

Well, it’s actually Australia, but still. These girls are good. “We really like our freshman class,” says Holsinger. “The expectations are definitely high.”

Galdeira will be counted upon to lead, in her own, unique way. “I’m not the type to yell when I’m trying to teach (the freshmen) something,” she says. “Being a leader and a captain this year is a big priority, but a leader is a kind of servant; you have to do everything and anything so that everyone else follows you.”

Like her father, Galdeira plays the guitar and ukulele. She brings the house down with her singing. “Everyone wants to follow her,” says Holsinger.

There’s still just two seniors on this ’14-15 team, Presley and Shalie Dheensaw. If Galdeira leads by example, they’ve got the vocal, accountability end down. The freshmen attest to that. Lia brings comedic effect. She allows everyone to relax. You need both styles to be really good.

A note to that dynamic. Before the Cal game in Seattle, Presley sat next to Galdeira on the bench just before the opening tip. Galdeira’s head was bowed, heavy in thought and prayer. Then, she resurfaced, only to be met by Presley frazzling her with her hands.

“Tia’s…I never know what she’s doing,” says Galdeira, laughing. “But that’s what makes us a team. We all have different personalities, and we all love each other for who we are.”

***

Toward the latter stages of that conference tourney game against Cal, there was this voice that kept ringing out in the Wazzu fan section, just a few rows above the bench.

Twenty-one! Twenty-one!

A quick turn of the head, and oh, it’s Lia’s father, Phillip. Asked afterward if that number bore any significance for Lia, Phillip chuckled and shook his head ever so slightly. He was referring to Cal junior star forward Reshanda Gray. “I just wanted Lia to take it to the rim and foul her out.”

Her brothers hadn’t made it for the conference tournament, but her mother was in attendance, sitting nearby. Phillip stood up to speak about this journey. How this tournament has been another revelation, how the team continued to become a reflection of the coaching staff.

Seattle was another chance for the Galdeiras to meet with the parents of other players and get to know this community better. Both of Awa’s parents were in attendance as well.

Phillip stared toward the Key Arena rafters. This team had come such a long way from the losses of last year.

You have to think that more post-season bids are on the way, the occasions becoming increasingly grand.

Phillip speaks about the opportunities present. Then, with trademark lyrical flourish, he finishes with, “This is where memories are made.”

Lia speaks for both of them—hell, the whole family, of which Wazzu has become an indelible member—when she turns her attention toward the season at hand and says, “This year is gonna be awesome.”