Tuesday, March 20, 2007 | Leora Juster didn’t arrive at the University of California, San Diego as a NCAA Division I women’s basketball talent, but four seasons later, she has refined her game to reach that level.

The evidence was apparent if you watched the 5-foot-8 senior guard play for the Division II Tritons. Coming out of Venice High in Los Angeles, she was considered a tad slow and small, but put her in a Division I game now and she can beat opponents with her special ball-handling skills and instincts.

Her talent also was evident Sunday at Lindbergh Field when UCSD’s players and coaches enjoyed a taste of Division I luxury, thanks to Juster leading the school to its first NCAA Division II West Regional title.

The Tritons boarded a charter flight to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight Tournament at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. The NCAA, with its millions earned from Division I television contracts, shared the wealth and paid for the flight.

“That’s pretty nice,” said UCSD coach Janell Jones, whose team is more accustomed to long bus rides.

UCSD (26-4) opens the tournament Wednesday against Glenville State (33-2) of West Virginia. The semifinals are Thursday, and the final on Saturday is televised by ESPN.

Playing in the shadow of the San Diego State and University of San Diego Division I men’s and women’s programs, I wondered what the Tritons think about the D-I versus D-II comparisons.

Mostly, they don’t think about it.

“I got over that a long time ago,” Juster said. “Division I is a prestige thing, but when you start thinking about it, all that outside stuff becomes meaningless to us.”

As an example, I asked Juster about fan complaints on sports talk radio or Internet message boards that SDSU’s team failed to advance to the NCAA tournament and had to settle for the NIT.

I wondered if her advice would be to appreciate how far SDSU coach Steve Fisher has brought the program to make back-to-back post-season trips. But she told me she was oblivious to the chatter.

She probably has been too busy working on her game and maintaining a 3.40 grade-point average in math and secondary education that earned her Division II third-team academic all-American honors.

My guess, though, is that a player with Juster’s basketball IQ could have evaluated SDSU and decided that the Aztecs lacked depth at guard to match preseason predictions of a repeat Mountain West Conference title and NCAA trip.

“She’s a very smart basketball player and very crafty on the court,” Jones said. “She would make a great coach.”

Juster also said the Tritons didn’t envy media attention paid USD’s women playing in the WNIT. If you saw UCSD’s women play before small but boisterous crowds at cozy RIMAC Arena — a spartan version of USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion — you would understand why.

 “We’re having fun playing basketball,” Juster said. “We’re having just as much fun as you would have in an NBA game.”

Juster has created a lot of that fun.

She was the player of the year in the California Collegiate Athletic Association as the Tritons won their first conference title at Division II.

She was the MVP of the West Regional. The Tritons’ opening-round regional win was their first at Division II before they went on to win two more games and the title.

Her academic all-American honors marked a first by a UCSD women’s basketball player at the Division II level.

But she’s more than a player that averages 22.6 points and collects honors and awards.

“She made everyone around her a better player,” Jones said. “Everyone around her has raised their game, because she’s such an unselfish player.”

Juster, who wants to teach and coach, has been accepted to graduate school, but she says she is considering trying to play professionally overseas next year.

When she does return for her master’s degree, UCSD’s parking enforcement division should pay her tuition. After all, it made a lot of money off her.

At the West Regional championship game (and who knows how many other games), the windshields of cars in the parking lot outside RIMAC were papered with $40 parking tickets.

Never mind that there no signs that could be readily spotted that instructed fans how to pay to park or that the parking lot nearest RIMAC had plenty of empty parking spaces despite fans taking up spots.

Numerous cars had notes attached to windshields about attending the game, but that didn’t stop the goofs from issuing parking tickets. A UCSD official told me that the parking department ignores the athletic department’s parking concerns.

Maybe someone in UCSD’s parking department needs to be made aware how well Juster and her teammates have represented the school.

“We’re playing our best basketball right now,” Juster said. “We didn’t think about a national title until after that first regional win. That was our best game of the year. We’re playing high quality basketball right now, and we’re thinking we can take it all the way.”

Along the way, the Tritons don’t worry about being overlooked as San Diego’s Division II team.

“We’re all chasing the same thing,” Jones said. “We all want to win a conference title, a regional title and a national title.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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