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Pitt's Zellous has come full circle

| Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

There are so many reasons why Shavonte Zellous could be someone other than who she is today.

She could have never grown tired of running track in the hot Florida sun in high school and decided to focus on basketball instead.

She could have not trusted coaches Agnus Berenato and Jeff Williams when they said come to Pitt — we will be a good team, and we will compete for a national championship.

She could have not had the epiphany her freshman year, when her grades were poor and her attitude not much better, that she was about to lose everything and needed to get it together.

But all that only makes it seem that much sweeter that the 5-foot-10 senior guard is who she is today — the leading scorer in the Big East, third-leading scorer in the nation and the strong leader of a No. 22 Pitt team that went to the Sweet Sixteen last year, with a career in the WNBA ahead of her.

"It feels good because there was so much stuff I needed to know," said Zellous, who is averaging 24 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. "Coming from high school, I didn't even know the basic fundamentals."

She knows now.

Track background helps

Zellous' track speed and long-jumping skills help her lift herself above virtually everyone else on the court. It's almost as if she has her own personal trampoline under her feet everywhere she goes, whether it's pulling up for a jumper or soaring for a rebound.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Zellous was "unstoppable" after the Pitt star scored 29 points in an 82-70 win over the No. 19 Irish on Tuesday.

The game before, Zellous — or just "Te" as Berenato calls her — totaled 31 points in an 86-54 win over Marquette.

"She's just amazing," Marquette coach Terri Mitchell said. "She's driving their team right now, and everyone's falling behind her."

Zellous has scored in double figures in every game this season. She has scored between 10 and 19 points five times in 21 games. The other 16 she's scored 20 points or more with one 42-point night against then-No. 20 Florida on Dec. 21.

An amazing 38.4 percent of Pitt's baskets go through her hands, and during a five-game stretch between Dec. 21-Jan. 10, Zellous averaged 29.4 points per game and scored 45.6 percent of Pitt's points.

Like mother, like daughter

But before Zellous was known as "Te", she was "Vonte" growing up in Orlando, Fla.

When she transferred to Jones High (Fla.) in her junior year, she had always been a low-post player who was far more interested in her track career than basketball. Her mother, Tangela Allen, had played for Jones coach Jimmy Mincey and wanted her daughter to do the same.

Mincey recognized that Zellous had more to offer, but it was going to take work.

"She wasn't shooting the ball very well at that time," Mincey said. "We spent hours at practice outdoors.

"When she was a junior and senior, we were in the process of the school being rebuilt, so we had to practice outdoors and play our games at the middle school. I started working with her left hand, and all of a sudden, she took off."

Mincey said Zellous had many of the same qualities back then - hard-working, driven, humble. She could score 50 points and act like she only scored one.

But she also played alongside Jessica Lawson, a 6-3 all-state center who soaked up most of the attention from recruiters. The University of South Florida wanted Lawson and was prepared to take Zellous. But when Lawson decided to go to the University of California, that left Zellous out in the cold.

In late April, Zellous was leaning toward South Carolina State when she got a call from associate coach Williams saying Pitt saw video of her playing in the Florida state championship game and wanted to come see her in the open gym.

That was 2003-04, Berenato's first season at Pitt. The Panthers won six games that year.

"When I met (Berenato and Williams), they told me that I could help the program," Zellous said. "And then she told me her record, and I was like, um, OK. Then she said, 'You just have to believe in us. We're going to win a national championship, and you could be the difference maker.' "

Zellous took the leap of faith.

Time to mature

But before she could help propel Pitt to its highest ranking in school history and first-ever trip to the Sweet Sixteen, she had some growing up to do.

Zellous redshirted her freshman year, admittedly not ready for the rigors of academics or sports at a Division I college.

"My freshman year was rough, getting kicked out of classes like I was still in high school, about to get sent back to Florida," she said. "I got a reality check real quick. I was like, let me get myself together. This is not high school.

"If I go home, I'm not going to be doing anything with myself, probably getting into some type of trouble, hanging with the wrong crowd. That was basically the turning point, realizing what I was going to lose and what I could gain by being here."

Back on track, Zellous was named the Big East Most Improved Player her sophomore season and earned a spot on the All-Big East First team, an honor she received again last year.

With Marcedes Walker gone, she is now the team's intense and nurturing leader.

Zellous is on pace to score the most single-season points in school history, a record which has stood for 24 years since Jennifer Bruce scored 681 in 1984-85. Zellous has 504; Bruce had 681.

She also recently became the third woman and fifth player overall at Pitt to break 2,000 points and could break the all-time scoring record held by Lorri Johnson, who scored 2,312 points from 1987-91. Bruce is the second-leading all-time scorer with 2,295 points between 1981-85; Zellous has 2,008.

Jennifer Bruce Scott was at Petersen Events Center on Tuesday when Zellous scored her 2,000th point. Her daughter, Shayla, is a sophomore forward for the Panthers.

"I think she's outstanding," Bruce Scott said of Zellous. "She's an automatic scorer."

Bruce Scott said it's too difficult to compare her career to those of Johnson and Zellous and say who's the best to ever play for the Panthers because they played different positions at different times and with different rules.

"Do I want her to break my record• No," Bruce Scott said, laughing. "But if she does, I'll be more than happy."

A WNBA future?

ESPN and CBS broadcaster Beth Mowins has watched Zellous develop over the years. Her strongest quality, Mowins said, is her use of elevation to create offense.

"It's so critical in the women's game, and you're at such an advantage, if you can create your own shot," Mowins said. "What Shavonte does better than just about anyone else in the women's game is elevation. Her jumper, dribble penetration, going for a rebound, she can get higher than just about anybody on the floor."

Pitt doesn't get the same hype as powerhouses Tennessee or Connecticut, but Zellous draws attention with her scoring. Mowins said Zellous will "absolutely" be a first-round pick at the WNBA draft April 9.

"I have run into a lot of scouts, and I know Shavonte is high on everybody's list," Mowins said. "When you're outscoring (Louisville's) Angel McCoughtry and (Connecticut's) Maya Moore, that says a lot about your game. I think all the WNBA coaches and scouts love her ability to get up and down the floor."

But Zellous, who already has a Bachelor of Science in administration of justice and is working on a second degree, isn't thinking about what comes after Pitt.

She's thinking about what's coming on March 6, when the Big East Tournament opens in Hartford, Conn. And she's thinking about the team's goals this year.

"I daydream about how far the program has come, about what if we win the Big East Championship, what if we win the national championship," Zellous said. "As a team, that's all we talk about. We picture it every day."

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