Monday, January 31, 2005 Updated: February 1, 9:26 AM ET
TCU's Irvin makes name for self
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
Nobody knew the first name of the freshman forward from Florida.
TCU senior Sandora Irvin is three blocks shy of breaking the NCAA career record.
Instead, "Michael Irvin's niece" was the moniker most people used.
Over the past four years, however, Sandora Irvin has made a name for herself. And like her famous uncle, she, too, has become quite the "Playmaker."
This season, the Horned Frogs senior is regarded as perhaps the best shot-blocker in women's NCAA history. While that's debatable, Irvin -- probably in her next game -- will take over the record for career blocks, as her 426 swats are just three shy of breaking the 14-year-old NCAA record. Irvin already established an NCAA single-game record with 16 blocks in a victory over UAB on Jan. 16.
Irvin has always excelled defensively, twice earning Conference USA's defensive player of the year. Irvin, however, is a complete player at both ends of the court, ranking eighth in the country in points (20.5), second in rebounds (12.7) and first in total blocks (96). Irvin, who also averages 2.4 steals, 2.2 assists and shoots 45.8 percent from the field, tallied her 59th career double-double Sunday as TCU (15-6) remained in a four-way tie for first place in Conference USA.
While Irvin's natural athleticism is likely the product of the blood lines she shares with her famous uncle, a former standout wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and current ESPN analyst, she also has hard work to thank for the success. After her freshman season, she returned to Florida and "hung out" over the summer. Now, she's a lot more dedicated, and can be found in the gym year-round, playing against teammates, guys, TCU's football players, anybody who'll lace them up. And every time she steps on the court, Irvin is out to add something to her game.
This past offseason, Irvin mainly focused on improving her versatility and ballhandling. She took shot after shot, improving her range, and was in the weight room every day working to get stronger.
Most notably, Irvin has become a better threat from outside. During her first three seasons at TCU, she went 14-for-34 from beyond the arc (attempting 17 3-pointers her first two seasons, then another 17 as a junior). This season, Irvin already has hit 14-of-35 --- or 40 percent -- of her 3-point attempts.
Expanding her game has made Irvin even tougher to guard. With a strong but lanky 6-foot-3 frame, Irvin has always been a nightmare matchup inside, where she's incredibly difficult to box out. But her feet are constantly in motion, too, and Irvin attacks the basketball and is a great jumper -- which make her a fabulous rebounder in addition to a great shot-blocker.
Irvin and TCU already have reached new heights this season. The Horned Frogs have scored four wins over ranked teams (Georgia, Michigan State, UCLA and Oklahoma), including their first victory over a top-five team (64-63 vs. the Lady Dogs on Nov. 27). And in each of her previous three seasons, TCU has reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Individually, Irvin also has excelled. She tallied a career-high 32 points in an 81-65 victory over Oklahoma on Dec. 9. And in that win over UAB, Irvin's 20 points, 18 rebounds and 16 blocks notched the first triple-double in TCU history. She's also the all-time leading shot-blocker and rebounder in C-USA history.
Irvin primarily had three goals at TCU -- help get the program some recognition, play a great schedule and earn some national respect. She already has accomplished them, and soon will focus her attention on the next level: the WNBA.
Irvin won't be around long when the draft arrives in April. And like a more aggressive Michelle Snow (the former Tennessee dunker was the 10th overall pick in 2002), Irvin is expected to be a top-10 draft pick.
Irvin, in fact, already has an eye toward the future, and smartly sought out former WNBA player Semeka Randall when TCU clashed with Michigan State. Randall, a Spartans assistant coach, shared some of her own experiences with Irvin during a nonconference tournament in Hawaii in November.
Irvin, who seems to be picking the right role models, also looks up to Swin Cash, who won two NCAA titles at UConn, a WNBA championship, an Olympic gold medal and was the 2002 Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. And like Cash, who with Tamika Catchings continues to redefine the 3 position, Irvin is trying to take her game away from the basket.
Though Irvin plays everywhere for TCU, she's a natural 4 who could eventually play the 3 at the pro level. Still, she reminds me of the best post in the world, Lisa Leslie. Both work very hard, take a lot of pride in their defense and give their teams such a boost. TCU's guards know they can gamble a little bit more and go for the steal because they've got Irvin behind them. Anne Donovan gave me the same sort of flexibility when we played together, and as a guard, it's a tremendous comfort knowing you've got such an incredible backup in the paint defensively.
And right now, Irvin is just playing incredibly well, and just might get her name called when the 10 Kodak All-Americans are announced in April.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.