Freshmen who graduated early gain NCAA tourney experience
UCLA assistant coach Tasha Brown calls her “Little Intern” — and Dominique Darius doesn’t mind.
Darius realizes how much she still has to learn about college basketball when most young women her age are in their final push toward high school graduation.
Players like Darius who graduated early are not only gaining a head start and valuable experience in their college basketball careers as early enrollees, they have been counted upon to help teams across the country keep their seasons going when players are held out for COVID-19 protocols.
Now, some will make their March Madness debuts on the big stage in the NCAA Tournament.
When Darius arrived at UCLA in late December eager to quickly rediscover her form after minimal organized basketball for nine months, Bruins coach Cori Close made one thing immediately clear: no pressure on Darius to deliver big shots right away, she just needed to absorb as much as she could.
“I’m getting in the groove of things,” said Darius, who turned 19 last weekend and enjoyed a Bel Air hike with Close. “The first day I walked in I got there early and I was just getting shots up because I hadn’t shot in like a week because I was quarantined and I was like, ‘Dang, I don’t have my shot or a feel for the game,’ but it was OK, they weren’t expecting me to.”
Darius, who attended Blair Academy boarding school in New Jersey and didn’t have a senior season because of COVID, has spent numerous hours playing catch up through film study and extra work in the gym.
At Oregon State, the Hemisfair Region eighth-seeded Beavers are getting a boost from Talia von Oelhoffen. Saylor Poffenbarger is doing the same for Connecticut, the No. 1 seed in the River Walk Region and No. 2 seed overall in the tournament.
Poffenbarger is happy to have the best of two worlds: She enrolled at UConn in January but Middletown High School in Maryland will welcome her back for both prom and graduation.
“I haven’t had any regrets,” she said. “I was to the point in my small town where I was ready to move on to the next thing.”
It has helped that one of her best friends, Olivia Miles, enrolled early at Notre Dame. They talk regularly about their shared experiences.
“A lot of what we discuss is knowing our role, finding our role and fitting into a role and not having to do everything,” Poffenbarger said. “But also just talking about being in college in general. Going from literally being in high school a few months ago to, we’re in college and taking college classes.”
Early enrollees aren’t unique to the women’s game. There are a handful of midyear enrollees playing for several teams in the men’s tournament, including top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State.
Ben Gregg, a 6-foot-10 freshman, enrolled at Gonzaga in December and has averaged 1.2 points while playing 47 minutes over 14 games. Ohio State leaned on guard Meechie Johnson Jr. for some significant minutes in January due to an injury, though he has appeared in just 17 games overall and hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in any game since.
While any minutes are valuable for these early enrollees, Darius is making the most of her time.
She gave UCLA an immediate lift as the program’s third top-30 recruit in as many years. In 14 games, she averaged 9.1 points and 1.1 rebounds.
“It just blows me away. Every time I lose my patience, coach Shannon (Perry-LeBeauf) says, ‘She’s a high school senior, Cori,’” Close said. “Really, it’s amazing, because physically she’s ready. She’s high-level athletic, long, strong, great body for the game, great athlete. But all the mental side, all the skills, the pace of the play those are a lot of adjustments there.
“I think Dominque has a great future for us and I told her all along … ‘all you can do is grow from this.’”
From a coach’s perspective, it’s tough to know how a player will do thrown into the pressure-packed conference schedule midseason.
Oregon State’s Von Oelhoffen graduated early from her small high school in Pasco, Washington, and soon afterward arrived on campus in Corvallis.
Beavers coach Scott Rueck noted, “It was kind of a mystery to add a high-schooler to your team at that point.”
But Von Oelhoffen provided immediate perimeter depth and impressed everyone with her ability to quickly learn multiple positions.
“It’s crazy, and it happened so fast, but you know it’s COVID and everything you kind of just roll with the punches,” Von Oelhoffen told the Pac-12 Networks. “So it’s kind of my new normal.”
Though California is not playing in the postseason, coach Charmin Smith is thankful for Mia Mastrov’s timely arrival in Berkeley that allowed the Golden Bears to keep playing games. And Smith knows what NCAA Tournament experience could mean to other such freshmen like Darius.
“For Dominique at UCLA to have tournament experience, that’s crucial,” Smith said.
No. 1 overall seed Stanford didn’t have the chance to bring anyone early, yet Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer is all for it.
“It’s a bonus year,” VanDerveer said. “Really, everyone has an extra year. … I think it’s great that they’ve allowed them to do that and they’ve been able to take advantage. It has helped some teams that were really low in numbers and maybe projected them into the NCAA Tournament.”
In addition to the experience on the court, Darius received another perk: She got out of dormitory living her first year of college.
“Coach Cori said, ‘We can’t put you in a dorm now,’” Darius said with a grin, “‘you’ve seen the good life.’”
AP Sports Writers Anne M. Peterson, Pat Eaton-Robb and Aaron Beard contributed to this report.
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By JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer