West Virginia's front Paige news

Yolanda Paige had been dissed. And her coach was fuming. "I can't believe ESPN.com didn't name you on its list of the top five point guards," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said one day last month at practice. "You've got a lot to prove this season." But while Carey carried on, Paige was passive. She tried to play along, feigning shock or insult. But it's just not in her nature. Paige knows two speeds. On the court, she's as quick as they come, dribbling past defenders and whipping passes past opponents. Off the court, however, Paige is the complete opposite. "I'm the quiet type; I like to chill, relax," said Paige, the Mountaineers' senior point guard. "I'm a leader, but I don't yell too much or get all angry. There are other ways you can do things." At 21, Paige already has figured out that words don't win people over nearly as well as actions. Paige just puts her head down and plays. And scores. And dishes out assists ... by the dozen, in fact. Against Northwestern on Nov. 22, Paige tallied 18 assists to establish a new West Virginia single-game record -- and tie a 13-year-old Big East mark. As coach Carey said after the game, "Paige knows she's one of the better point guards in the country and she's going out and proving it." Point taken. Because there's no denying Paige is in fact one of the best in the country. Through six games this season, she's averaging 11.8 assists for West Virginia (6-0). Equally impressive, Paige averages just 2.5 turnovers to go with 10.3 points on 45 percent accuracy from the field, and 3.7 rebounds. As of Sunday, she had nine more assists (71) than points (62). "The pass is my No. 1 goal," Paige said. "But I give all the credit to my teammates, because they're the ones finishing. I have so much confidence in them and am 100 percent sure they're going to make the shots." National stats haven't been released yet for 2004-05, but Paige is no doubt near the top if not No. 1 in the assists category. She ranked fourth nationally and first in the Big East last season with 7.9 assists per game, and sixth in the country as a sophomore (7.1). She also became the first West Virginia player to be named to the All-Big East tournament team in 2004, and her 253 assists were a new single-season record at West Virginia, shattering the old mark by 50. Like many female basketball players, Paige first began playing ball at the park or on the playground with the guys. Playing against bigger, stronger boys helped make her tough, and taught Paige that scoring might not be her forte. "The bigger guys always blocked my shot," she said. "That's when I figured I had to pass more." Nowadays, Paige streaks by defenders and threads passes through holes others wouldn't dare. She has even been known to catch her own teammates off guard, causing a bloody nose or two. Still, Paige was the one caught off guard when Big East coaches named her to the all-league preseason first team. "That was a surprise; I didn't think I was going to make a team," she said. Neither Paige nor the Mountaineers are used to much time in the spotlight. Not nationally, despite a 20-win season and No. 11 seed in last season's NCAA Tournament. And certainly not in the Big East, which three-time defending NCAA champion UConn, as well as Notre Dame, Rutgers, Boston College and Villanova, have dominated. Paige wants to change all that. "I sort of look forward to being overlooked; it only makes me work harder," she said. "But we have to go further this year." Further, she says, than a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, West Virginia earned its first dance bid since 1992, only to get bounced in the first round by sixth-seeded Ohio State, 73-67. "In my heart I knew we deserved to be there, but after we lost in the first game, it was like we hadn't even been there," Paige recalled. "But this team now, we're getting ready. We have a lot of young players, but we're playing well. We need to get a little bit tougher, and on offense in the half court set, we need much more spacing when we run our plays. But we're focused." With one exception -- coming into camp her freshman season so out of shape that she quickly earned the nickname "Wheezy" because she did so poorly during conditioning -- focus has never been a problem for Paige. In fact, future foes should be wary if it seems she's focusing too much on their feet or eyes. That's how Paige can tell when she has her opponent beat. "I know something's going to happen when my defender looks nervous," she said. "Sometimes I can see it in their eyes, and sometimes it's their feet, just moving side to side, all nervous because they don't know which way I'm going to go." A split second later, Paige is past her defender. Sometimes she uses her new favorite move -- between the legs, left hand to right, followed by a spin move back to the left hand -- to find the open player or drive inside. And this season, Paige says, is the first she has noticed she's a little faster, thanks to some offseason agility workouts. And before the next offseason arrives, Paige knows there will be one final pass to make: the torch. "I've been very fortunate and I appreciate the opportunities I've had here," Paige said. "I hope I can give the younger players something to look up to, to show them that with hard work and dedication, and if they keep their head up, they can do anything they believe in."

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Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.