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Provo • Because she is tall, athletic and the niece of former Utah Jazz star Thurl Bailey, everybody always assumes that Morgan Bailey grew up loving basketball and excelling at the sport.

Actually, she preferred tap dancing.

"I was horrible at basketball at first," Bailey said. "I gave up dancing and tried out in the ninth grade, and although I made the team, I was just awful. I was really awkward, and I couldn't even catch a ball, let alone dribble one."

But look at Bailey now. The senior is averaging a double-double — 18.5 points and 10.9 rebounds — for a BYU women's basketball team that is desperately trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament after reaching the Sweet 16 last year with Jennifer Hamson.

The Cougars (19-7, 11-4 WCC) dropped a pair of close games on the road last week to Saint Mary's and Pacific and are now tied for third in the league with San Diego.

Bailey, 6-foot-2, was recently named the Midseason Women's College Basketball Most Improved Player by the and is starting to be talked about as a potential WNBA draft pick. She became the 26th player in school history to score 1,000 points two weeks ago against San Francisco.

"Morgan is probably the best post scorer I have had," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. "Jen was good, but Morgan can score in so many different ways in the post. She can spin off you, she can shoot outside, and she has up-and-under moves from either shoulder. Offensively, the kid is amazing, and she's also a really good defender."

The notion seven years ago that Bailey would be making all-conference teams and drawing the attention of pro scouts was far-fetched for almost everybody but Judkins, who saw the gangly post player in the state tournament as a sophomore for Orem's Timpanogos High and went back to BYU and told his assistant coaches he had found his future post player. "Morgan who?" they asked.

Thurl Bailey is not surprised his niece has excelled, after a slow start. He said injuries slowed her development her first few seasons at BYU.

"I have to say I am not surprised with where she is right now in her career, based on how hard she has worked on it," he said. "She has been through some negative things, injuries and all that, and she has just battled through them all. She knows where she wants to go. She has goals set, and she has really been able to meet those and surpass them."

Thurl Bailey, who played for the Minnesota Timberwolves and overseas, in addition to two stints with the Jazz, said Morgan will have the opportunity to play for money in the near future.

"With her set of skills, with her body type, and her toughness, I think she has a shot," he said. "The nice thing is, she's just not being talked about in local circles. I think her play last year in the NCAA Tournament got her some national notoriety, especially her play against UConn. She wants to play at the next level, and whatever the next level is, she has prepared herself for it."

Bailey, who will graduate this spring with a degree in exercise and wellness and a minor in nutrition, was just as perplexed that nearby BYU would want her for her basketball ability.

"I had glasses, and they were always getting knocked off," she said, remembering the days before her single mother, Roxeanne Bailey, decided she was responsible enough to wear contacts. "People made fun of me because my sweats were floods and I tucked in my [jersey]. I was uncoordinated, wasn't aggressive at all and I didn't realize that I looked like a dork and the biggest wannabe basketball player ever."

Now, she's just the opposite — a physical, attacking player who can score with her back to the basket or from the perimeter. Bailey has made eight 3-pointers and is shooting 51.6 percent from the field.

"She has gotten so much better every single year," Judkins said. "That's a compliment to her. There are a lot of players who stay where they are. Morgan has worked hard to improve."

The climb has been filled with obstacles.

Morgan's parents divorced when she was 2 years old, and she moved with her mother and two siblings to Utah to be closer to more members of her mother's church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her mother had joined the church before she was born. Her father, Carl, stayed in Virginia and hasn't been a big part of her life.

"I haven't talked to him in forever," Bailey said. "Once in a blue moon, he will call me, but there's not really a relationship there. My mom worked really hard to get me where I am, so that drives me. I want to make her proud of me and I want to pay her back one day, so this is how I do it."

Roxeanne Bailey is a schoolteacher, but had to pick up extra jobs at night and during the summer to support her family.

"I don't know how my mother did it," Bailey said. "She just sacrificed a lot. She would do everything she could so we could do what we do."

Morgan Bailey said it is "sheer coincidence" that her uncle also lives in Utah, because he was playing professionally in Europe when her family moved here. He and Judkins have become father figures to her now, in addition to helping her improve her basketball skills.

"I rely on a lot of men, like bishops, coaches like Juddy, and especially Thurl," she said. "Basketball-wise, Thurl has helped me. Person-wise, he's helped me. Thurl has always been there for me."

Twitter: @drewjay —

Morgan Bailey file

• Senior forward on BYU's women's basketball team is the niece of former Utah Jazz star Thurl Bailey

• Named the Midseason Most Improved Player in women's college basketball by the website ESPNw

• Timpanogos High product is averaging a double-double: 18.5 points and 10.9 rebounds a game