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THE INSIDE TRACK | DIANE PUCIN

UCLA, USC Home Alone While Taurasi Prospers

March 30, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

The Mendiola sisters from Lake Forest, Gio and Giuliana, led the Washington women's basketball team to the Elite Eight. They aren't playing for USC or UCLA because Gio, who is a year older than Giuliana, waited a year to start college so she could be recruited as a package with her sister.

Neither Chris Gobrecht, coach at USC, nor Kathy Olivier, coach at UCLA, chose to do that.

So we watched Gio and Giuliana upset No. 2-seeded Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.

But there's more of that kind of thing going on. Lots more, as it turns out.

The woman Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore says has the potential to play the game the way no one else ever has is from Chino. She is a freshman too. At Connecticut. Playing in the Final Four.

Diana Taurasi considered UCLA and Olivier recruited her as hard as she has ever recruited any player.

Taurasi, a 6-footer, is a fearless shooter. She is strong enough to wrestle rebounds from 6-5 players and yet is a fluid, graceful shooter and a clever, creative passer.

She can sell tickets, win games and bring other talented players to the school. And she went as far from California as possible.

Why?

"When I went to Storrs on my recruiting trip, there were 10,000 people who came to watch an exhibition game," Taurasi says. "It was so cool. I don't think basketball can ever be that big a deal at home."

That's the easy answer.

Then there's the answer from some local high school and AAU coaches.

They say that Taurasi really liked UCLA and wanted to go there but that UCLA wasn't getting any other recruits, that Taurasi didn't want to end up as a 6-foot center. She wanted to be a 6-foot guard. She wanted a program, not a team.

So Taurasi left.

It used to be, we had programs in Southern California. When Cheryl Miller, the McGee twins, Cynthia Cooper were playing at USC, the Trojans were Tennessee or UConn. It was a destination program. Then those players graduated and maybe the administration didn't understand that you couldn't just open the gym doors and all the best players from California would stroll in.

As more and more universities began recruiting, began increasing budgets and hiring charismatic, talented coaches, the players began going somewhere else.

USC's Gobrecht says, "A lot of what drives us now is, we have this sense of, 'We started it and we want to get back in the picture.' The sport lay dormant here for a while. There were four coaches in five years. Recruiting was neglected for a considerable period.

"Now the administration has decided to make a change, to become a program again. Hey, this school has a lot to put forth, about what we've been, what we can offer in terms of location, heritage, facility."

And USC is trying. If Gobrecht couldn't get Taurasi, she did get Ebony Hoffman from Harbor City Narbonne and Hoffman was a top-10 recruit in Taurasi's class.

But Gobrecht also says that it is too bad a Southern California school couldn't get Taurasi.

"Every time I see her, I know we let a good one get away," Gobrecht says. "The kid can put the ball in the basket. She's a skilled, strong, savvy player."

Olivier says that every time she sees Taurasi play, "I'm kicking myself, obviously. It would have been important to get Diana to come here. She's a player who would increase the fan base, the kind of player who causes a buzz, who people want to see play.

"Our team was going to have so many seniors graduate and Diana kept asking, 'Who am I going to play with?' I tried to tell Diana that she is such a strong personality she would have brought people with her. But then she goes to UConn and there are 10,000 people at the exhibition and she comes home and can't believe it."

Taurasi went to UConn even knowing that she wouldn't start. After starring at all the summer camps before her senior high school season, Taurasi had said she wanted to go where she would start right away.

Then she went to UConn and came off the bench.

"It was worth it, to play for this program," she says.

That word again.

Not until player-of-the-year candidate Svetlana Abrosimova was lost for the season about a month ago because of a foot injury did Taurasi become a starter. And when Shea Ralph was lost during the Big East tournament, Taurasi became a star.

She was most valuable player of the Big East tournament and the NCAA's East Regional.

"The game of women's basketball has never seen a player of her size who can shoot it like she shoots it, and loves to pass it the way she loves to pass it," UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said Monday night in Pittsburgh after Taurasi had led the Huskies over Louisiana Tech in the East Regional final.

After that same game, in which Taurasi had 17 points and 10 rebounds and held Louisiana Tech star Brooke Lassiter in check defensively, Barmore was moved to say, "There's no one in America on the perimeter better than her. Take one second off and give her five feet of room and Diana's going to score on you. She's truly one of the best I've seen at that age. She's unbelievable."

And she's in Connecticut.

"I thought I wanted to stay at home," says Taurasi from St. Louis, where she is ready to play in her first Final Four. "But when I saw what UConn had to offer, I just had to go there."

One local AAU coach said, "Basically, what happened was that Kathy [Olivier] didn't get any big people. Diana wanted to go to UCLA but they had nobody over 6-foot tall. And Diana didn't want to play center."

So now Taurasi plays on the perimeter and dominates. And USC continues to rebuild. And UCLA, an Elite Eight team two years ago, looks wistfully east and hopes that there is another Diana Taurasi somewhere near who will want to stay home.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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