No longer the understudy, it's Quinn city at UCLA

Updated: December 8, 2006, 9:27 PM ET

THE QUICK DISH



Noelle Quinn

UCLA is 4-4 and fell out of the Top 25 rankings, but senior Noelle Quinn is one of the nation's top players. (Darryl Dennis/Icon SMI)

LOS ANGELES -- At first glance, Los Angeles seems like a strange place to find a senior star playing in the shadows. But any city with as many bright lights as this one is bound to have its share of shadows.

UCLA's Noelle Quinn is really a perfect fit for a town where nothing is ever quite what it seems. On the court, the senior sizzles, dropping no-look passes on a whim and smoothly strutting down the court with the confidence of a young Antoine Walker (when that could still be construed as a compliment). She passes, she rebounds and she shoots, all with the same cool assassin's demeanor that Diana Taurasi perfected.

She's just good. And she knows it.

So who is this person sitting quietly in a deserted interview room after a recent game and talking about needing to be more vocal? Who is this mild-mannered young woman, who loves buying sheet music and playing her mother's piano, smiling shyly and patiently answering questions in a voice that wouldn't draw a second glance in a library the week before finals?

"I have to be more vocal," Quinn said. "I'm a quiet person, but on the court, it's kind of a different animal."

It turns out Quinn is just playing a role on the court, adopting the mannerisms and affects of a character she has spent more than a decade honing. The wannabes serving up lattes and muffins in coffee shops from Long Beach to Santa Monica ought to take lessons.

No longer the understudy to Lisa Willis and Nikki Blue (both of whom have gone on to the WNBA), it's a role Quinn has to carry off without a hitch if a young UCLA team is going to return to the NCAA Tournament. And as evidenced by a 4-4 start that knocked the Bruins out of the Top 25, even a perfect performance may end up being nothing more than a bittersweet soliloquy as she exits the stage.

Quinn was UCLA's leading scorer last season (18.1 ppg), scoring more points than any Bruin in 15 seasons, as UCLA raced to a 21-11 record and battled Purdue for 40 minutes before bowing out in a memorable second-round encounter on the Boilermakers' home court in the NCAA Tournament. As her 15.0 ppg and other stats suggest, her role has changed dramatically this season. She trails fellow senior Lindsey Pluimer in scoring and is shooting just 37 percent from the floor, but Quinn accounts for 42 percent of the team's assists while maintaining a respectable assist-turnover ratio (1.5) and averaging 5.5 rebounds per game.

"It's totally different," Quinn said. "First of all, Nikki was our point guard and ran the show, Lisa was our shooter and our defensive specialist and did a little bit of everything. So I have the ball in my hands a lot, which is a different role for me. I'm used to it, because when I was growing up I played point a little bit, but not only do I have to play point, I have to rebound, I have to score and I have to be a leader, a vocal leader and tell people where to go."

Of the eight players averaging double-digit minutes in UCLA's rotation, four are either freshmen or sophomores, and a fifth, senior Shaina Zaidi, is playing the first significant minutes of her career. That leaves Quinn, Pluimer and three-year role player Amanda Livingston as the experienced hands for coach Kathy Olivier.

Pluimer, who is too often forced to play out of position in the post, is a versatile wing player with height and a good midrange game, but Quinn is the foundation and the first three stories of a four-story house. And as frustrating as it might seem, she understands that for the time being, part of being that foundation is not wavering in the lessons learned during her first three seasons.

"I think I've learned the game a little bit more," Quinn said. "I always took pride in the fact that I was a smart player, but I think college, aside from going to school and having a balance as a student-athlete, I've just learned the game a little more. Kind of wait for my defenders to mess up. Not so much being on the attack a lot of the time but just waiting."

The problem this year is that understanding the game doesn't necessarily guarantee answers. Sometimes you simply grow to understand that there's not much you can do.

Quinn's optimism remains unbowed, however, and there's some reason for that. In sophomore Chinyere Ibekwe and freshman Monique Alexander, the Bruins have a pair of post prospects that any coach would be lucky to have. Alexander remains a very raw product (more turnovers than field goals in her first eight games), but Ibekwe has gone from averaging 5.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.4 minutes per game as a freshman to averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game this season.

"For the posts, I think it's just a matter of confidence," Quinn said. "We've never had such big bodies as the ones we do this year, and that was kind of a struggle for us in the past. And they're so capable, though they're young. I think playing these games is going to give them confidence. And when we're peaking, then you'll probably see it change like they're going to be beasts down there. But I'm excited for our posts. … Monique is a big target. I like targets, I like passing the ball. So when she's on the floor, I just want her to be big, because she's like 6-6."

In a recent loss against Oklahoma, Alexander tried a baseline jumper that sailed several feet over the basket on one possession. The next time UCLA had the ball, Quinn waited for Alexander to establish position on the block, executed a perfect entry pass and commanded a suddenly tentative Alexander to go the basket. For a player with every reason to be frustrated at being asked to spend her final season coaching on the floor and every reason to think of her own numbers in preparation for a WNBA career, it was a remarkable moment of commitment to her coach and her program.

"That's one of the things I've been working on as a leader," Quinn said. "Because a lot of times, I just want everyone to be on the level I'm at, but I have to realize that not everyone is going to be there right away. So with Mo, she needs confidence. She had a mismatch, so I'm telling her to go, go, go. … That's my project, because she has so much potential but she gets down on herself sometimes. But she does great."

Spoken like a leader.

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



NOTABLE NUMBER

18 Pat Summitt might have left North Carolina with Tennessee's first loss of the season, but the Lady Vols' longtime coach didn't go home empty-handed.

Summitt has six NCAA titles on her résumé, and when compared to most of her peers, she's at the top of the list. That is, except when she's rubbing elbows with UNC women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance.

Summitt, known as a tireless learner, asked to sit in on Dorrance's locker room pregame speech as the Tar Heels prepared to take the field in the women's soccer national championship game Sunday in Cary, N.C. In town to face the UNC women's hoops team later that night in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., Summitt -- dressed head-to-toe in an orange Tennessee sweat suit -- listened in as Dorrance addressed his team just moments before the Tar Heels kicked off the title game against Notre Dame.

During a pregame interview Sunday night at Carmichael Auditorium, Summitt told ESPN's Rebecca Lobo she asked to listen in because Summitt "wants to learn from the best." And that just might be Dorrance. On Sunday, his Tar Heels collected their 18th NCAA title. In 28 seasons, Dorrance's teams are 629-28-18.

So what did Summitt, who said she has known Dorrance for some time and just finished reading his second book, take away from the locker room talk?

"His speech was serious with the right amount of humor," Summitt told Lobo. "Even before a national championship game, his humor struck me because he had the right balance."

The adoration appears to be mutual.

"For our kids, a lot of them when they were kids were basketball players as well," Dorrance told Lobo. "So it was a thrill for all of us to have her in there and we loved it." -- ESPN.com



COWGIRLS UP

Oklahoma State, which was 6-22 last season, is now 8-0 after Monday's victory over Prairie View A&M. Have the Cowgirls left the state of Oklahoma yet to play? No. Seven games have been in Stillwater, the other in Tulsa. Do we know for sure how much progress they've actually made? It wouldn't be the first time a team wracked up nonconference wins and then took a plunge when the league battles began. (See Kansas last season, for example.)

But …

For Oklahoma State fans -- yeah, some incredibly loyal folks really have stuck it out through many miserable years with the Cowgirls -- 8-0 is worth hollerin' about.

Oklahoma State is the only one of the Big 12's schools that has not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since the league formed for the 1996-97 season. The Cowgirls' last appearance was that previous season.

In fact, while women's basketball has been a big success for the league, Oklahoma State has been the program that has suffered the most from the expansion of the Big 8 to the Big 12. In the last eight years of that league, Oklahoma State made the NCAA Tournament seven times. But other than two WNIT appearances, it has been a postseason desert since.

It's fair to say three big things have hurt Oklahoma State:

• Sherri Coale was hired at Oklahoma in 1996 and turned her program into a national championship contender. This is not to say the Sooners and Cowgirls can't both be good at the same time. It has just made it harder on Oklahoma State.

• The schedule matrix in the Big 12 means the South teams play each other twice and the North teams just once. And vice versa. The South teams in recent years have been better overall. The three Big 12 teams that have made the Final Four since the league started (Oklahoma in 2002, Texas in 2003 and Baylor, which won it all, in 2005) are from the South. So climbing up from the bottom is even harder when you're in the South.

• Oklahoma State made a mistake with the hiring of Division III coach Julie Goodenough to replace the chased-out Dick Halterman in 2002. She just wasn't the right choice for such a formidable challenge.

Coach Kurt Budke, with a long track record of success, took over last season and endured a 0-16 mark in league play. By mid-February, though, the Cowgirls were starting to get "scary" for visitors; they lost to Missouri by just four and to Texas by five at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

This season, Budke brought in 10 newcomers and is at least closer to the kind of speed he needs to coach the way he wants. At Big 12 media day in October, he said of rookie guard Andrea Riley, "She is as quick as any player I have ever had in my 20-plus years. She is going to bring a whole lot of excitement to the gym."

Monday afternoon, Riley won the Big 12 Rookie of the Week award for getting 11 points and 11 assists over UMKC and 20 points and 10 assists vs. Oral Roberts. Then Monday evening, she hit two attempts from the line to set a school mark for consecutive free throws made with 31. She passed Jennifer Crow's mark of 30, set in 1999.

Having the majority of nonconference games at home was by design, of course, as Budke hoped to build confidence. So far, so good. The Cowgirls have their first "true" road game Saturday at Arkansas State. -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel

SPEAKING OF QUINN …

Make no mistake about it. Noelle Quinn's scoring average has decreased a little more than three points per game this season, but she remains UCLA's go-to player.

Quinn has the talent to put up Kobe Bryant-like numbers every game. One look at her tells you she's big and strong. And it doesn't take long to figure out she can shoot and handle the ball well, too. But her biggest strength is what a smart player she is fundamentally. Quinn truly understands how to play the game and how to make her teammates better. She has excellent vision and is a great passer, as well as a strong rebounder. Really, she has no glaring weaknesses.

Next April, Quinn could emerge as a Kodak All-American -- and will absolutely be a first-round pick in the WNBA draft. In discussions with WNBA personnel, UCLA's staff members have even heard that Quinn could be considered a top-three pick. -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman