Commentary

Prince so much more than just a 113-point performance

Updated: January 31, 2008, 6:06 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Like a photo snapped from a cell phone, it's easy to get a quick-but-lasting impression of just about anyone or anything these days. The danger comes in believing that blurry recollection holds all the truths there are to know.

[+] EnlargeEpiphanny Prince
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireEpiphanny Prince leads Rutgers in scoring (13.1 ppg) and steals (54) and adds 5.9 rpg.

Distinctive from the moment it was bestowed upon her, Epiphanny Prince's name became instantly recognizable the moment she scored 113 points in a single game on Feb. 1, 2006, as a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School in New York. Quoted in the New York Post shortly after the loss, the opposing coach said the decision to leave Prince on the court in a game that ended 137-32 was akin to "picking on a handicapped person."

As is often the case in a sports world saturated with opinions, pundits with no interest in or knowledge of the individuals and events seized an opportunity to climb atop a soapbox and pontificate on the ideals of sportsmanship (see also: Nykesha Sales and Villanova, Hope Solo and Greg Ryan, or Don Imus and Rutgers). Prince became another casualty of the modern news cycle. She had a name many recognized, but she remained a person few outside of Brooklyn cared to study further once the next headline dropped.

Fast-forward a couple of years and Prince is getting the last laugh, even as No. 4 Rutgers looks to bounce back from Tuesday's loss at No. 12 West Virginia. One of the best all-around players in the nation, the sophomore defends, passes and, yes, scores as well as anyone. What she doesn't do is gloat, glower, goad or generally offer any indication that she cares about anything but winning.

On or off court, Prince betrays surreptitious shyness more than stereotypical selfishness.

"She's quiet, but she's a jokester," offered Rutgers senior Essence Carson, whose Scarlet Knights host top-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut on Tuesday.

Carson was in attendance at an AAU tournament Prince played in before she arrived on campus for her freshman year at Rutgers. Prince flagged down Carson, handed her a camera and asked her to take a picture of her with her godfather. Carson obliged, only to get a face full of water after pressing the button on what turned out to be a novelty gag.

"This was at a time where I had met her before, but it wasn't like we were really, really close friends," Carson said. "But I'm like, 'This girl is going to drive me crazy.' "

FRIENDLY RIVALRY

It came with an embarrassed grin, but Epiphanny Prince admitted to at least one instance of talking a little trash since arriving at Rutgers.

Connecticut's Tina Charles is one of her close friends, and while the two usually spend their time talking about anything but basketball, Prince couldn't resist sending her friend a message from the Final Four in Cleveland after Charles had brushed off a loss against Rutgers in the Big East tournament.

"After we beat them in the [Big East] tournament, she was trying to make it seem like they had the worst game ever," Prince said. "So then she was like, 'Don't worry, because we're going to dance longer than ya'll.'

"So then when we made it to the Final Four, I had to say something, so I'm like, 'I'm still dancing; where are you?' "

To be continued Tuesday in Piscataway when Rutgers hosts UConn.

-- ESPN.com's Graham Hays

Most of what you learn about Prince comes from secondhand stories. Coach C. Vivian Stringer described her as the person who will stand in a doorway coming up with jokes to avoid coming in a room. She's the person who sits quietly while Carson, a music major, plays the piano and Matee Ajavon sings when the team gathers at the coach's house. But Prince is also the one who counts Jay-Z as an acquaintance and who inspired Connecticut sophomore Kaili McLaren's family to bring food for their daughter's arch rival when Rutgers visited McLaren's hometown of Washington D.C., for a game this season.

As Stringer said, "You know, it's kind of strange, a lot of people like her -- I don't mean strange that a lot of people like her but different kinds of people."

Nothing suggested Prince was more than a headline caricature to better effect than signing with Rutgers in the first place. A chance to play with Kia Vaughn, a childhood friend with whom she had long shared a desire to play together in college, was one attraction. But Prince was well aware that Stringer's system has been and always will be predicated on the distinction between trying to score more points than an opponent and trying to make sure they score fewer points than you do.

"I knew [Stringer] could help me with my defense, because I wasn't that good with defense," Prince said. "Everyone just always told me that if I put my mind to it, I would be a good defensive player. Because they say people who score good can defend good, too, because we can anticipate and stuff. But I don't know, I just never used to do that in high school."

Stringer even told her to take some time and reconsider her decision after she concluded she wanted to go to Rutgers; Stringer wanted her to understand what she was signing up for. Everyone on the Scarlet Knights' roster was to some degree an offensive star in high school, but Prince's reputation preceded her even amongst future teammates.

"All I knew about her was she was a great offensive player out of Brooklyn," Carson said. "Everyone just gave the impression that she was one of those players that was really gifted on the offensive side of things but really didn't put in the hard work on the defensive side of things. So I was just like, 'Well, I'll see when she gets here.'

"But when she finally got to school, got on campus, she's a competitor. So if she didn't know how to play defense at the time, she made an effort. She made it her No. 1 priority to go out there and to learn how to play defense and be competitive and compete on both ends of the floor."

Everyone just gave the impression that [Epiphanny Prince] was one of those players that was really gifted on the offensive side of things but really didn't put in the hard work on the defensive side of things. ... But when she finally got to school, got on campus, she's a competitor. So if she didn't know how to play defense at the time, she made an effort. She made it her No. 1 priority to go out there and to learn how to play defense and be competitive and compete on both ends of the floor.

-- Rutgers' Essence Carson

Prince was right about her own potential; she did have the anticipation to create defense. She led the Scarlet Knights with 89 steals as a freshman, including one in the closing seconds of a third-round NCAA Tournament game against Duke that sent her sprinting down court for what proved to be the winning basket. And after dropping weight in the offseason and passing (on the first try) the conditioning tests that tormented her last season, Prince is on pace to hit triple digits in steals if the team plays even a modest number of postseason games. By the time the season ends, she could conceivably be within 100 steals of current assistant coach Tasha Pointer's career record at Rutgers.

While steals can be an indicator of individual defensive abilities, they can also sometimes be the product of gambles that might hurt a team's defensive integrity. But that hasn't been the case with Prince, who routinely draws the toughest defensive assignment as Carson, renowned as one the nation's best one-on-one defenders, has been slowed by a stress fracture in her foot this season. Currently, Rutgers ranks second nationally in field-goal defense despite having played five teams currently ranked in the top 10 and seven ranked teams overall.

And there's still the offense. Prince grew up emulating Brooklyn legends like Sebastian Telfair and Omar Cook, and there are occasionally traces of their games in her crossover. There is also a trace of Tennessee's Shannon Bobbitt, Prince's high school teammate, in her smooth outside shot. But some things are all her own -- it would be difficult to find a player better at seeking out space for mid-range jumpers, at least since Jackie Stiles left the scene.

"She can score from anywhere on the floor anytime she want to," Carson said. "She has that ability. She has the ability to step out to 3-point range, or she has the ability to take you off the dribble. And right now, she has the defensive side of things in her repertoire, which can only get better. Everything is on an up from her."

Stringer said she continues to stress to Prince that great players must display a desire to stand out from the crowd, rather than the more common desire of potentially great players to fit in with the crowd. It's a message Prince also gets when she goes home to Brooklyn and finds herself the object of autograph requests from little girls, just the way she used to look up to male stars like Telfair and Cook growing up. But traveling that path will also require a degree of selfishness to separate herself in a way that could test a delicate balance between simultaneously drawing a crowd and shying from the spotlight.

"She cares about all the people -- all of the people -- that care about her, or say they care about her," Stringer said. "She cares about all of them. And that can be a burden, you know what I mean? That can be a heck of a burden. But she genuinely does care and she doesn't want to disappoint anybody."

All of which has a lot more to do with who Prince is, and who she has a chance to become, than two hours in a high school game.

"I think that that's not the only thing that's going to define my career," Prince said. "Through my whole high school career, I think I only lost five games, so I'd like to be known as a winner, not just because I scored some points."

There's a lot more to the whole picture than just one snapshot from a high school game. Just like there's a lot more to Prince's game than just scoring points.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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