Tuesday January 25th, 2005

In a senior class full of terrific players who have labored in the obscurity of unranked teams -- hello, Tabitha Pool of Michigan, Natasha Brackett of Auburn and Tan White of Mississippi State -- few pro prospects have flown as far below the radar as Houston's 6-foot-4center, Sancho Lyttle, who is averaging 20.5 points, (13th in the nation) and 13.1 rebounds (tied for first in the nation) a game. Yes, she is on the Wade Trophy watch list and WNBA scouts have been flocking to her games, but she has virtually no name in the national press. Considering that she has already accomplished the one thing that used to be the only thing that got female players much press -- in her first game as a Lady Cougar she dunked, against a shocked Gonzaga team -- that's a little surprising.

Then again, maybe it's not. While her classmates were crowding all-star camps and AAU tournaments in high school, Lyttle was running track and playing netball -- a game that resembles basketball in few ways, but the fact that one scores by putting a ball in a basket -- in her native St. Vincent in the West Indies. A standout sprinter from the time she was 9 -- she once ran a blistering 54.55 in the 400 meters -- and a star defender on the national netball team as a 18-year-old, Lyttle didn't play basketball until her senior year of high school. Her track coach told her a scholarship from Wichita State was in the works, but an offer to play basketball at Clarendon Junior College in Texas came in first. "Apparently the coach, Wade Scott, was looking for tall girls," said Lyttle. "My first year there, all I did was run the floor, post up, run the floor, defend, run the floor, post up. But the second year I started moving around more."

In one game at Clarendon, Lyttle tallied 49 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks. A few D-I schools noticed. Lyttle visited Washington State and Texas A&M but chose Houston for its weather and proximity to the Caribbean.

Last year, while playing in the considerable shadow of eventual first-round draft pick Chandi Jones, Lyttle averaged 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds and led the Lady Cougars with 13 double-doubles and one dunk. ("A teammate dared me to do that," she says, laughing. "I've tried it other times, but I can't palm the ball. I grab onto the rim after the ball is gone.") This year she has been the team's undisputed star. She has had a double-double in 15 of the Lady Cougars' 18 games, including last weekend's 63-56 win at Cincinnati and 50-49 loss at Louisville, games she played with a high-ankle sprain. "Louisville was probably the poorest game she has played for us," said Houston coach Joe Curl, "and she still had 15 points and 11 rebounds hobbling up and down the floor."

Curl loves to talk about Lyttle's dedication to the team spirit of basketball, her unusual journey to the top of the NCAA statistical rankings and her adjustment to basketball, as played in America. "Early on when someone would face her up or give her an elbow, she'd say, 'I don't think they are playing me very honorably,'" said Curl, chuckling. "Then she learned to do a little elbowing herself."

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