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Turning Point

A heartbreaking tournament loss inspires USC's Murphy

January 21, 2006|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

If it is true that you learn more in defeat than in victory, then consider Eshaya Murphy a new student of basketball.

The Trojans' junior guard, the fifth-leading scorer in the Pacific 10 Conference, has used the memory of USC's last-second loss to Michigan State in last year's NCAA tournament as a lesson plan.

In her first two seasons, Murphy averaged 2.9 and 5.4 points a game. The numbers were nothing like the promise she brought to USC after a stellar high school career at Van Nuys Montclair Prep, where she was a four-year letter winner and helped the team win the Southern Section Division 4-AA championship in 2001.

This season, however, Murphy has become the go-to threat the Trojans lacked last year despite winning 20 games and reaching the second round of NCAA tournament.

She is averaging 16.2 points and a team-leading 6.8 rebounds.

"She's one of the most improved players, not just in the Pac-10 but in the country," Washington Coach June Daugherty said after watching Murphy record 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists in USC's 64-61 victory at Washington on Sunday.

"She's always been an athletic young lady, able to get to the rim and do some things. But she has really improved on her outside shooting," Daugherty said. "She's almost automatic with the long three. And defensively she is into it with a lot of steals. I just think her total game has come [forward] light years."

Murphy said the final three seconds of the Michigan State game changed her outlook on basketball.

After the Spartans went ahead, 61-59, in the final three seconds, Murphy thought she had called time out but was instead cited for stepping over the out-of-bounds line, giving the ball back to Michigan State. Trojan guard Jamie Hagiya deflected the inbounds toward Murphy who, despite colliding with a Spartan defender, got off a half-court shot that missed as time expired.

"The whole thing, the reason why I think I'm the player I am today -- that whole game just opened my eyes," Murphy said. "Michigan State was a great team and we were so raw back then. We were competing against a No. 1 seed, and to think if I had actually worked on my game or if we had worked [harder] how successful we could be.

"But [now] I'm a different person, a different player. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Murphy spent the summer rededicating herself to basketball. She said she worked out three times a day -- mornings in a health club running and lifting weights, playing outdoor pickup games against men and then going to an indoor gym at night to shoot.

She and teammate Camille LeNoir were invited to try out for the USA Women's under-21 national team for the World University Games. Although neither made the final cut, Murphy was reminded -- again -- of what she could accomplish if she would push herself.

"I got to compete and go hard every day," Murphy said. "I realized in day three -- when it was too late -- that I could actually play here. Before I was more tentative -- oh look, there goes so-and-so -- but it really helped me. It was a great confidence booster."

When Murphy reported to fall practice for USC, she was 20 pounds lighter and eager to show everyone she was ready for a breakout year.

USC assistant coach Kai Felton knew where the inspiration had come from.

"She's disappointed after any loss. But after the Michigan State game, something clicked in her mind that her team could be good and she needed to be a part of it," Felton said. "She felt the loss was on her shoulders. She said she never wants to feel that bad again. When she came back to school she was a different athlete. We realized she was putting her heart and soul into the program."

It has paid off handsomely. Murphy has scored fewer than 10 points only once this season and has been in double figures for 11 consecutive games. All of her key statistics are markedly improved: her field goal percentage has risen from 36.6% to 43.2%; the three-point shooting from 25.7% to 38.2% and free-throw shooting from 68.9% to 75%. Three times this season she has equaled her career high of 22 points.

And she's doing it despite a left ankle that she sprained before the season started, an injury that won't completely heal until the season ends.

Today's game against UCLA marks the halfway point in the Pac-10 season. USC, on the strength of its current four-game winning streak, has moved into second place. As with all Trojan-Bruin affairs, the bragging rights mean as much if not more than the conference standings.

Murphy professes nothing but respect for UCLA.

"I know it will come down to the wire," she said. "UCLA is a great team, with great players. Lisa [Willis] is having a fabulous year.

"But you have so many [UCLA] players to stop. They have a lot of weapons over there."

The Trojans believe they now have one in Murphy.

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