- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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Last year Erica Wheeler got the second of her two tattoos, the first being an homage to her mother, Melissa. She had the work done on the day after Christmas.
"It was a present," she says, "to myself."
And an apt one, celebrating her soaring self-image. There is a basketball with a crown and the words, "Queen of the court."
Two years ago, Wheeler would not have made such a pronouncement, much less commit to a program as storied as Rutgers, which she did on Wednesday night. The No. 39 prospect in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred chose C. Vivian Stringer's Scarlet Knights over LSU and Florida. Wheeler originally verballed to hometown Miami as an eighth grader, but changed her mind, she said, because she equated leaving home with facilitating personal growth.
That growth is evident. Wheeler wasn't even going to take a visit to Rutgers because last year's signing class had yielded Nikki Speed, the MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game. Plus the Scarlet Knights are flush with guards, with Ephianny Prince and Brittany Ray set to be seniors, Khadijah Rushdan a junior and Speed, Jasmine Dixon and April Sykes sophomores by the time Wheeler joins them.
But Sykes reminded Wheeler of her stance when she balked at trying out for their club team, Essence, which won Nike Nationals in 2007.
"She was right," Wheeler said. "I didn't think I was good enough. But when I went to practice, I fit in well. It was just like when I played pickup ball with the girls at Rutgers; I fit in well there, too."
Stringer also reminded Wheeler that, because of the team's vaunted 55 press and aggressive defensive style, no one played for extended stretches at Rutgers and playing time would be meted out based on work ethic and conditioning. That assuaged Wheeler, who has an Energizer Bunny approach at both ends of the court.
Wheeler said she also was influenced by the presence of former Essence teammates Sykes and Chelsea Lee. The latter had "been in my ear" about Rutgers since the day she signed with the Scarlet Knights last year. The trio believe they can produce a national title, as they did on the club level.
"When I went to visit (Oct. 16), I said, 'OK, I'm far away from home,' and all that," Wheeler said. "But when I got around the players, I felt like I was already on the team. A lot of people said the number of guards and talent they had was a reason I shouldn't go there. But it's never been about me. I don't mind being a piece of the puzzle.
"I don't want to sit around for two years before my team starts winning. I want to win now."
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the McDonald's All-American and Parade All-American Selection Committees, he formerly coached girls club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.