A look of uncertainty creeps over University of San Francisco forward Nnenna Okereke’s face as she crouches into position for the opening tip-off. The source of her apprehension could be pre-game nerves. But it’s probably Amber Sprague.
Okereke is ostensibly about to contest USD’s senior All-WCC center for the game’s opening jump ball. But as the 5-foot-10 Okereke stares warily over — or, rather, up — at the 6-foot-5 Sprague, futility is etched in her “here-goes-nothing” expression.
A whistle blows and the ball is sent aloft. Sprague wins the tip easily. Seconds later, she receives a bounce-pass from USD forward Kiva Herman, spins and deftly hits a bank shot while being mauled by a helpless defender. “Let’s go!” Sprague shouts, exhorting her teammates with fists clenched.
This is USD’s first conference game of the season, but — judging by Sprague’s fiery display and the raucous cheer it elicits from the USD bench — it could just as well be the NCAA Tournament. That’s because the Toreros want nothing more than another waltz at the “Big Dance.”
“In the off-season we really made that our focus,” Sprague says. “We’ve been trying to up our level of play so that we can not only get back to the tournament but get there and win.”
Last season, USD shocked Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final to earn its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in eight years (the team finished 19-13 after being dropped in the first round by the University of California, Berkeley). Four starters return this year, but it’s the one that got away — graduated All-WCC point guard Amanda Rego — that caused some early growing pains. Big wins (San Diego State, Seton Hall) were offset by tough losses (Cal Poly, UC Irvine) before the team won the Maggie Dixon Surf ‘N Slam Classic to build momentum going into WCC play.
“At the beginning of the season we were still trying to find our way,” Sprague says. “But now that we’re getting into conference, I think we’re playing great basketball.”
That effort has been spurred in part by the quick ascension of Rego’s replacement, freshman point guard Dominique Conners. Where the unflappable Rego worked to steadily manage a game, Conners’ tendency is to escalate the pace. Against San Francisco, the freshman spark plug skidded across the floor, dove into the scorer’s table and jumped over the press row in pursuit of loose balls when she wasn’t slicing and dicing her way to 18 points.
“Dominique has had to grow up pretty fast as a freshman, and I think she’s really done a great job,” Herman says.
While Conners provides ample electricity, seniors Sprague and Herman give USD opponents a potent double dose of thunder and lightning. Sprague is on track to become USD’s all-time leading scorer, and Herman has developed into a versatile star that provides a potent inside/outside counterpunch to Sprague’s dominance around the basket. While Herman humbly insists she still has a lot to learn, USD head coach Cindy Fisher says both Herman and Sprague are garnering attention from WNBA scouts. For their part, both stars insist that the team’s supporting cast — including Conners, freshman Morgan Woodrow, senior Kaila Mangrum, and sophomores Emily Hatch and Sam Child — are the real key to success.
“Everybody on this team is valuable,” Sprague says. “We need everyone to get where we want to be.”
Four years ago, USD finished a mediocre 9-21 in Fisher’s first season at the helm. The coach credits the resurgence to chemistry, dedication and above all else, discipline.
“Discipline in the classroom, discipline in their lives and discipline on the court,” Fisher says. “These girls know what it takes to win and they know they can’t take a day off if they’re going to be successful.”
The team hasn’t had many off-days this season (at press time, their overall record stood at 12-6) but the Toreros won’t be satisfied until they return to the NCAA Tournament in March.
“We know what it takes to get there,” Herman says. “We have to work even harder to do it again.”