SAN DIEGO — Sonya Carter, the leading scorer in Indiana girls' high school basketball last season, could have attended Louisville or stayed in Indiana and continued her career at Ball State.
But then there was that school out West recruiting her, United States International University.
"I asked them, 'Where is USIU?' " Carter said. "They said, 'Do you know where San Diego State is? It's right down the street.' "
Well, perhaps not right down the street, but USIU is within the city limits. Now, in the women's postseason college basketball playoffs, the Gulls are San Diego's only representative in a Division I tournament. USIU will play Notre Dame in a first-round game of the National Invitation Tournament Thursday at Amarillo, Tex.
Coach Cassie Macias shakes her head in amazement when she reflects on USIU's 23-7 record. When she took over three years ago, the Gulls were coming off a 6-21 season.
Talk about inauspicious debuts. In Macias' first game as the USIU coach, the Gulls lost by 50 points to Cal Poly Pomona.
However, things got better. USIU finished 16-12 in 1983-84 and was 13-14 last season.
New players who came to USIU from various backgrounds--and for various reasons--turned the program around.
Toya DeCree, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, left Arizona State after her freshman season because she didn't get along with the coach. DeCree wanted to quit basketball and attend Cal State Los Angeles, but decided to go to USIU at her mother's urging. Her mother knew of another player who had left Arizona State and transferred to USIU, and thought DeCree should do the same.
Carter, the team's top newcomer, decided to come to USIU after a recruiting trip to San Diego last March. The big factor: There was snow on the ground back home but lots of sunshine in San Diego.
Two other freshmen also start for USIU--Dawn Crinklaw, an all-state player from Nebraska, and Yvonne Sanchez, an all-state player from New Mexico.
How does USIU, a relative unknown in women's college basketball, attract such talented players?
"Look at the states we're dealing with," Macias said. "You have two main state schools in New Mexico with New Mexico and New Mexico State. In Nebraska, you have Nebraska and Creighton. If you have the choice of Southern California or those schools, what would you do?"
In part because USIU has satellite campuses in London, Mexico City and Nairobi, it has been successful in recruiting foreign players as well. Players such as sophomore centers Fiona Murray and Amanda Spry of England came to USIU hoping to get experience that will help them eventually make their country's Olympic team.
Both attend USIU during the season and USIUE (United States International University of Europe) during the off-season.
Macias became acquainted with Murray and Spry two years ago when she coached an all-star high school team from Florida that toured England and Sweden. She requested videotapes on the players from their club team coach, then she recruited them.
"It was such a shock when we got to come here," Murray said. "We used to hear about men getting scholarships to come here. We never heard of women getting them. We couldn't believe this was actually happening."
A few years ago, not even Macias believed that the Gulls would be able to come so far so fast. That's one reason this season has been so satisfying for her.
"We've been facing a lot of odds," Macias said. "We're a small private school in a very big city, and San Diego State is very good. Plus, we don't have our own gym. It's hard for us to become known. I have to stop and think about everything sometimes. It's remarkable where we have come in a short amount of time."