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ABBOTSFORD — From his courtside vantage point as an assistant coach with the University of the Fraser Valley women’s basketball team, Dan Nayebzadeh was intently studying the flow of play during one of the Cascades’ games from last weekend’s regular season-ending twin-bill sweep of the Regina Cougars at the Envision Financial Athletic Centre.
Quite suddenly, struck by the uncanny sight he had just witnessed, he smiled and said to himself: “Hey, she just pulled a Dirk.”
For the purposes of this story of a rising Canadian basketball talent, “…a Dirk” is best described as one of the many shot-making moves contained within the arsenal of retired Dallas Mavericks’ superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki.
And the player so naturally and unknowingly mimicking the moves of the 7-footer from Germany?
None other than the Cascades’ 6-foot-1 freshman guard-forward Deanna Tuchscherer, who on Friday (6 p.m.) takes her rookie season into the Canada West playoffs when the Cascades play host to Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack in one of four opening-round sudden-elimination games.
“I’m talking about a turnaround shot off one foot, where she brings a knee up, and then fades away,” exclaimed Nayebzadeh. “She hit two of those against Regina. Right now, she is just making super high-level shots. She hits from three, off the dribble, and with that turnaround jumper. Right now, we are relying on her to be who she is.”
And on a Cascades’ team which just might be the most improved U Sports group in the nation this season, their turnaround has been astounding.
After all, who takes four pure freshmen players, all straight out of the B.C. high school ranks, inserts them all into a U Sports’ team’s top-six rotation, then proceeds to improve from 10-10 a year ago to 16-4?
There is fifth-year forward Taylor Claggett who has defined herself as the most decorated player in UFV program history, as well as the unflappable fourth-year guard Amanda Thompson, both of whom have provided their invaluable veteran-ness.
And with that, the Fab Four of Tuchscherer, Jessica Parker, Maddy Gobeil and Nikki Cabuco have followed suit by delivering on the toughest part of it all: Living up to the hype.
Put yourself in the crowd at the Langley Events Centre on March 1 of last year.
It’s Final Four Friday at the B.C. senior girls Double A basketball championships, and Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies are trailing the Langley Christian Lightning 62-60 with 2.7 seconds remaining.
Everyone in the crowd, on both benches, and on the floor knows one thing at this moment: G.W. Graham head coach Sarah Mouritzen has designed a play to get her star player, Deanna Tuchscherer, the ball.
As I wrote that night for Varsity Letters: “She in-bounded the ball in the front court, got it back on the baseline, and from an angle in which her launch point appeared to be behind the actual goal, she released a runner which dropped through net as the game clock expired.”
Much of Tuchscherer’s body was obscured by the mass of players around her at the time, but it’s likely that the shot which allowed the Grizzlies to ultimately triumph 74-68 in overtime, came with a little Dirk-like flair.
And as we all suspected, that so called ‘something, something’ that Tuchscherer showed in high school, with select teams and with Canada Basketball, has absolutely transferred to the U Sports’ level.
Statistically, it’s all there.
A rookie averaging 15.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, with those numbers not evaporating into the void, but instead supporting Claggett’s magnificent senior season (19.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) and playing a big role in the team’s 16-2 record after its 0-2 start to the conference campaign.
Ask Tuchscherer about it all, and she is most confident talking about enjoying any individual progress made in her rookie season by speaking to it in the context of her team and her teammates.
Especially as it pertains to Claggett.
“She has been a role model for me for a long time, but having the chance to play with her in her final year has been pretty special,” says Tuchscherer, who averages 29.8 minutes per game alongside Claggett, who checks in at a team-high 34.9 mpg.
“I think the biggest reason the first-years have had success is because she’s made us feel comfortable, but also has held us to an expectation that we don’t have to play like first-years.”
In Tuchscherer, the daughter of UFV head coach Al Tuchscherer, you can’t find a better example.
In fact her stat line on a winning team is the kind of stuff worthy of U Sports Rookie of the Year chatter.
“I think her game is suited for the next (university) level,” says Al Tuchscherer. “It highlights her ability to make plays, to facilitate, and to showcase her entire game.”
Which brings us back to coach Nayebzadeh, glued to the action, studying the chess match on the floor in front of him, and at times, perhaps wishing he had a little popcorn to munch.
“You know, I don’t think she knows about Dirk,” said Nayebzadeh of Nowitzki. “But it doesn’t matter because there is this old-school game that is just a part of her. She does that stuff because it’s natural.”
Indeed, Nowitzki’s dexterity, balance, athleticism and coordination for a 7-footer were stunning, and in a long-limbed league like the NBA, it was his ability to manufacture shooting opportunities in seemingly non-existent situations that made him special.
Tuchscherer, whose developmental path never allowed her to remain a static player in the paint, also never rested when it came time to finding shots at every place within a half-court setting.
Drawing defensive attention led to her own inventions, including the spin-fade moves which, out of necessity, have now become strengths in her skill set.
“The big difference is that everything here comes at a different pace,” she says. “Over the first half of the season, I was just getting used to making all the reads. But you just don’t get a rest… not a moment to take a breath. If you do, defensively, you will pay.”
Looking back in near-comical hindsight, as the Cascades opened the 2019-20 season on the road back in November with a pair of losses in Winnipeg, Tuchscherer actually played like a rookie by shooting a combined 6-of-24 from the field, and producing six and nine points respectively.
Ever since, she’s shooting 45 per cent from the field, has hit double-figures in scoring in 17 of her last 18 conference games, set a new Cascades’ Canada West single-game conference scoring record with 35 points in a win over TWU, and then came within a hair of recording the first triple-double in UFV’s women’s basketball history with 14 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds in a win over Mt. Royal.
“She need to improve on the defensive side of the ball and she needs to dominate the boards,” says Nayebzadeh, who knows her bar needs to be kept just out of reach. “Sometimes she gets two or three rebounds when she could get eight or nine. Once she figures that out, she will be really special.”
Of course ‘special’ is the best way to describe what has transpired over UFV’s regular season, and with the momentum of an active 11-game win streak nudging them forward, the second season which begins Friday, seems to come with much promise.
“I have not seen this before,” said Nayebzadeh, a veteran of the B.C. collegiate and high school coaching scene of a team able to win so consistently with such a pronounced freshman roster. “This is a unique situation because the new kids are so locked in and committed to the culture that Al is building.
“The older kids are the anchors, and Taylor (Claggett) and Amanda Thompson have had great seasons. They are our anchors. But the young kids… they too, are carrying this team to a certain degree.”
Nayebzadeh sees that passion every game day.
“We call it ‘early bus’,” he says of a tradition that doesn’t actually include any bus rides to the gym, but nonetheless has seen the first-year players take it on themselves to get to the game-day gym a full 90 minutes ahead of the rest of the team.
“For all of us first-years, this season has been about us being willing to step outside of our comfort zone,” Deanna Tuchscherer says of accepting a level of leadership that might be a little ahead of the curve for rookie players.
It’s safe to say UFV’s Fab Four have done just that, yet the best part of all that sits in the fact that they have done it in ways that respect the roster’s hierarchy and celebrates the team dynamic.
So many would say that’s the hardest part… finding and minding the harmony.
And it’s because all of that is taken care of, that you can see special rookies doing special things.
A Parker three, a Cabuco steal, a Gobeil outlet. And, of course, Deanna making like Dirk.
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