Zellous transforms from relative unknown to one of game's best
Only one Division I college had expressed any desire to bring in Shavonte Zellous when she was in high school in Orlando, Fla. It was in the spring of her senior year, and she figured maybe that's where she was headed: South Carolina State.
Then again, maybe not. She wasn't sure what was going to happen. Most of her fellow seniors across the nation by then had long since made their college plans. Zellous, a 5-foot-11 guard, had been the MVP of her state high school hoops tournament. She was also a track standout. But it didn't seem as if any college was really all that interested in her.
You've read a lot about Elena Delle Donne, the highly recruited player since her early teens who decided not to play basketball. This, however, is the opposite kind of story: someone who really wasn't recruited at all, but is now one of the top players in women's college basketball.
"Nobody was after Shavonte," said coach Agnus Berenato, who left Georgia Tech to take over at Pitt in 2003. "But we were horrendous my first year here; we had six wins. So we were looking for anything."
Marynell Meadors, who's now head coach of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, was then an assistant at Pitt. She was watching a rerun of a Florida girls' state tournament game, more or less passing the time.
Jones High of Orlando was playing, and the center on that team, Jessica Lawson, was headed to Cal (she would later transfer to South Florida). But Meadors noticed that there was this guard who was a teammate of Lawson's
"Marynell said, 'I think she's pretty good,'" Berenato recalled. "So we flew down to Florida to see Shavonte. She was an athlete, for sure, but kind of an out-of-control athlete. Raw, raw, raw. We needed her, though. We offered her a full scholarship, and she came."
Zellous was completely surprised when she found out Pittsburgh was even interested -- let alone ready to bring her on board.
"I thought, 'Well, maybe I can come and help this program," she said.
Her first year, Zellous redshirted, getting acclimated to college and the move north to Pittsburgh, which wasn't very easy. She was homesick and missed the familiarity of her native warm-weather climate. But she knew she had to stick it out because this was her chance: playing for a coach who believed in her and for a team that really needed her.
"I had to learn so much," Zellous said. "You think you know it all in high school, and then you find out you have a lot to learn.
"You know, when Coach B recruited me, it was about being a part of something and changing the program around. At first, I was like, 'Is this lady crazy? She really thinks this can happen?' But then coming here and seeing the program change, it feels so good to be part of it."
Berenato points out that Pitt's building process has depended on bringing in players regardless of how highly they were rated in recruiting circles.
"We figured, 'We'll get them here and work with them,'" Berenato said. "We'd tell them, 'We can give you playing time.' I think if you let them play, you believe in them and they believe in you, then it doesn't matter how highly you were ranked as a recruit.
"So much has to do with heart. And when you look at our team, that's what it's all about. I think there's a lot to be said for the will of the human spirit."
In Zellous' first season, she helped the Panthers make the WNIT. The next year, Pitt made the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Then last season, the Panthers got all the way to the Sweet 16, beating Wyoming and Baylor before falling to eventual national runner-up Stanford.
Pittsburgh lost Marcedes Walker and Mallorie Winn off that team. But the Panthers have Zellous back, along with Sophronia Sallard (who had transferred in 2006 from Kansas) and Xenia Stewart.
However, in the season opener in November against Texas A&M, Pittsburgh lost junior point guard Jania Sims to a knee injury. She had been on the All-Big East freshman team in 2007, but sat out the second semester of her sophomore year because of academic issues.
Berenato expected Sims to be a very big part of the team this season, and the Panthers had a difficult time initially dealing with losing her. But since that opening loss to Texas A&M, Pittsburgh's only other loss was at Florida on Dec. 21. Zellous is averaging 22.2 points and 5.1 rebounds for the 10-2 Panthers.
"We had to go to a point guard by committee, and that's what they're doing," Berenato said. "Right now, I feel we have a special team, and we have very high goals. This is the best chemistry of any team I've ever had."
Oh, and about that Florida game. It was a loss, yes, but a magnificent performance by Zellous. She had a career-high 42 points in her return to her home state.
"I guess I wanted to send a statement: 'Here's what you missed out on,'" she said. "Because Florida didn't recruit me. I felt like it was one of those games where nobody could stop me."
Think of it: In just a few years, Zellous has gone from not really having any idea exactly how basketball would be in her future to a player who Berenato thinks is a surefire pro prospect.
"She's a kid who just loves basketball," Berenato said. "She works hard, and doesn't have a lot of wants and needs. She's very appreciative, the kind who's always grateful. She says it all the time, 'Thanks for having me here.'"
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.