Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the journey of San Diego State’s women’s basketball team’s transformation from a winless Mountain West Conference season to a banner-hanging one began with but a single highly coveted recruit.
The recruit’s name is Quenese Davis, a junior guard from Sacramento’s Rio Americano High, who started the turnaround that resulted in the Aztecs claiming a share of the MWC title with a 61-55 win Saturday at Nevada-Las Vegas.
She was the prospect with Pac-10 scholarship offers that SDSU head coach Beth Burns convinced there was something special about being part of turning around a program rather than the safer route of contributing to the success of an established one.
So on Davis’ recruiting trip to SDSU three years ago, Burns sat her down in her office. She showed her a picture of four SDSU players from her first time turning around the Aztecs that was a gift from her former athletes.
Twins Falisha Wright and Lakeysha Wright, Michelle Suman and Christina Murguia led SDSU to 89 wins and three NCAA tournaments trips in four seasons from their freshmen year (1991-92) to their senior season (1994-95).
The key recruit was Falisha Wright, who would become a two-time All-American honorable mention guard for the Aztecs. Burns got Wright to believe she could be a key player in turning around the program.
And then, after Wright’s commitment was in hand, her twin sister, Suman and Murguia followed.
“We told Falisha we would surround her with talent,” Burns said. “She trusted us to come across country from New Jersey to play for us.”
Burns used the same recruiting blueprint when she went about rebuilding SDSU for the second time. She discovered a bare cupboard before her first season in the 2005-06 season when SDSU would finish 3-24 overall and 0-16 in the MWC.
“I told Q, ‘Do you think I’ve recruited you hard?’ ” Burns recalled. “Q is woman of few words, and she said, ‘Yes.’ I told her, ‘Well, we’re going to get some more players that we’ll recruit just as hard.’ “
Davis trusted her, and now look at the Aztecs’ representation on the All-MWC team released Monday as conference schools prepare for the men’s and women’s MWC tournaments that begin Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Paris Johnson, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center, and Jene Morris, a 5-9 junior guard, were first-team picks. Quenese Davis (5-9) was named to the second team. And, not coincidentally, Burns was named the Coach of the Year.
“If you can you show recruits San Diego State is good enough for Quenese Davis, then they can decide ‘it’s good enough for me,’” Burns said. “If San Diego State is good enough for Paris Johnson, it helps other players make the decision.”
Women’s sports, of course, doesn’t have the same level of recruiting hype surrounding it that men’s sports does. But it’s not a stretch to say that Burns landing Paris Johnson would be akin to SDSU men’s coach Steve Fisher landing Jeremy Tyler, the prominent San Diego High junior that never seriously considering staying home before he committed to national power Louisville.
Johnson was the kind of big-time recruit that had coaches from colleges in Eastern time zones calling her at 5 a.m. San Diego time to say, “Hey, Paris, what are you doing?”
“Sleeping,” she’d reply.
Any recruit that a coach is willing to get on the bad side of by waking them at 5 a.m. just for the chance to talk to them must be a pretty special player.
Johnson’s freshman year was hindered by a lengthy recovery from a severely broken leg, but this year she’s shown she can be a dominant force.
Her 14.3 points per game was second on the team in scoring to Morris (14.8), she led the team in rebounding (8.5) and she set a conference record for blocked shots with 83, including 52 in 16 conference games.
Johnson posted nine double-doubles and showed an ability to play under pressure. She hit the game-winning shot on a pass from Quenese Davis with five seconds remaining in a 68-66 win Wednesday at Colorado State that set up SDSU to claim a share of the title with its win Saturday at UNLV.
Next year Johnson will be joined inside by the return from a season-long suspension of Allison Duffy (6-1), whose sister, Ashley, also joins the Aztecs next year as a freshman guard from El Capitan High.
But another addition will be Jessika Bradley, a 6-3 transfer from national power Baylor by way of Sacramento. In Bradley’s high school years, she knew the Davis sisters and Morris from northern California. She also played on a club team that included Johnson and SDSU sophomore guard Jerica Williams, a Mount Miguel High alum that returned home from UCLA.
“Jessika said she was nervous at first, but then she realized she knew probably 90 percent of the players on the team already,” Burns said.
Grab on and hold on tight, because Beth Burns is just getting started for one of the best rides San Diego State basketball has enjoyed.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.