Team Players
The resounding success of women’s basketball
by Tom Shanahan

GETTING PSYCHED in the pre-game huddle is part of building a championship program. Although the Toreros ultimately lost at home, their post-season experience may pay off next year.

When USD point guard Amanda Rego, then a sophomore, heard the final buzzer on the court in Spokane, Wash., last year, she felt a sense of panic.

“I realized my career was half over,” Rego recalls. “I was thinking, ‘I’ve only got two years to go. I can’t keep losing. It’s time to kick it into gear.’”

Apparently, it took that bleak moment — a first-round loss in the West Coast Conference tournament after the Toreros took only nine of 28 games during the 2005-06 season — to get to the resounding success that the University of San Diego women’s basketball team experienced this winter.

Part of that turnaround was Rego’s decision that her old ways of preparation during the off-season didn’t work. Not for herself, and not for a team that wants to compete for a WCC title and NCAA tournament berths.

“Since the day we lost in the WCC first round (in 2006), she went to work, and it’s paid off,” USD coach Cindy Fisher says. “She went to the weight room to get stronger. She worked on her shot. She improved her game all the way around. She was a leader, getting the girls together in the summer to play.”

That determination paid off. The Toreros reversed fortunes in their second season under Fisher with a 21-9 mark, and the 12-victory improvement was the biggest turnaround in program history. The team broke the school record for wins in a season (17), while finishing as the runner-up in the regular-season WCC standings with a 10-4 mark. The Toreros again missed out on the NCAA tournament, but this time there was a post-season appearance in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Rego also broke ground for USD when she was named the WCC Co-Player of the Year, sharing the honor with Stephanie Hawk of WCC champion Gonzaga. It marked the first time a USD woman’s basketball player has won even a share of the credit.

“That kind of honor means everything to the program,” Fisher said. “Amanda exemplifies everything we expect from our players. She comes to work every day to get better. She wanted to prove a lot this year, and she got it done.”

But Rego, who led the nation in assists with 7.6 per game, wasn’t alone on the court for the Toreros. She was joined on the 10-member All-WCC first team by Amber Sprague, a 6-foot-5 sophomore center/forward; Morgan Henderson, who was named to the All-Freshman team; and Fisher, who was voted Co-Coach of the Year along with Gonzaga’s Kelly Graves.

“In terms of personal goals, I wasn’t thinking about Player of the Year,” Rego says. “I wanted to be a leader and I wanted a good assist-to-turnover ratio. I wanted to do whatever our team needed me to do to win.”

But despite the gains made during Rego’s junior season, the Toreros suffered another first-round loss in the WCC tournament when they were upset by San Francisco and were eliminated from earning a berth in the NCAA tournament. This time, though, the WCC tournament loss was cushioned by the season’s 21 wins that earned a bid to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

“I was talking with our new football coach (Ron Caragher), and he was saying the great thing about being a bowl team in college football is the extra practices the team’s younger players get,” Fisher said. “For a young team like ours, it’s invaluable experience. We were on the floor practicing, while the season has ended for a lot of other teams.”

Although the Toreros lost at home to UC Santa Barbara, 75-63, in a first-round WNIT game in mid-March, the post-season experience may pay off next season. Santa Barbara, which was making its second straight WNIT trip following nine straight NCAA appearances, opened an early lead in the game that the Toreros never overcame.

“To end the season the way we did was extremely disappointing and not what we expected, but you can’t take away from the great year these kids had,” Fisher said. “They’ll continue to work hard and to get better. We’ll get back to the drawing board and try to figure out some things that we lacked this year.”

The Toreros’ only previous post-season appearances were first-round losses in the NCAA tournament in 1992-93 and 1999-2000. Fisher says USD fans can expect better than another seven-year wait between post-season trips.

“We took a huge step in the right direction by making the WNIT this season,” Fisher said. “We want to build a championship program at this school.”

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