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Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Updated: February 20, 12:25 PM ET
Fresh approach for top-ranked St. Mary's

By Walter Villa
Special to espnW

Vanessa Murphy
Freshman Vanessa Murphy says some butterflies paid her a visit before she started in No. 1. St. Mary's opener.

Vanessa Murphy admits shes not much of a dancer.

Basketball, though, is a different story for the 6-foot freshman forward at St. Marys (Phoenix).

On a team that is ranked No. 1 by ESPN HoopGurlz, is the reigning national champion, has won 48 consecutive games (including four en route to the title at last years prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions) and boasts six players who already have committed to a Division I college, Murphy is a regular contributor.

As a freshman.

Murphy and St. Marys (8-0) are back at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix this week hoping to defend their title, starting with Thursdays game against Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.).

Shes a rare freshman who understands how hard you have to work at this level, St. Marys coach Curtis Ekmark said.

Given the programs past and present, its easy to see why Murphy, 14, was so nervous when she started on opening night.

I had butterflies, but once I got in the game, it got easier, Murphy said. I think my teammates sensed I was nervous. They were reminding me of the plays so I wouldnt mess up.

They kept telling me that I was doing great -- theyre really supportive girls.

Murphy said the Knights pregame rituals have helped her fight off the nerves.

We play music and have locker room fun, Murphy said. People will dance, and well all just talk. I guess Im not that great of a dancer -- [seniors] Chloe Johnson and Brandee Walton are the best ones.

Johnson is a San Diego State recruit, and Walton is headed to New Mexico State, and they are not even the highest-ranked prospects on the team.

That honor goes to 6-foot junior wing Courtney Ekmark, the No. 13 prospect in the 2014 class and Coach Ekmarks daughter. She already has given a verbal commitment to Connecticut.

In addition, senior twins Dominique and Danielle Williams are committed to UCLA and Michigan, respectively, and senior forward Chantel Osahor will play for Washington next year. All three are Top 100 recruits.

Curtis Ekmark said Murphy fits right in with this veteran group that is attempting to win its third straight state title.

Vanessa Murphy
Vanessa Murphy is no stranger to playing against older girls.

We do some complex things, he said. And she picks them up quickly.

That should come as no surprise when you consider she is the youngest of five kids, all girls and all former high school basketball players.

Its like having a lot of mothers, Murphy said of her four older sisters.

One sister, Samantha, played at Grand Canyon University and has competed as a pro in Iceland.

The Murphy girls learned to play basketball in the driveway in front of their house, which is about four miles from St. Marys.

Vanessa was in second grade when her sister Mallory helped lead St. Marys to a state title.

I would go to the games decked out in [St. Marys] green, Murphy said. It inspired me to play the game. I wanted to win a trophy just like [Mallory].

Last year, when Murphy was in eighth grade at St. Thomas the Apostle, three of her sisters joined forces with a couple of teachers and challenged the kids on the schools outdoor court.

The adults won.

It was quite an experience, said Murphy, who estimates she scored 15 points in the informal game. There were some fouls thrown around by my sisters -- I wont lie. Samantha took it the most seriously; shes very competitive.

Samantha, 24, who retired from basketball after last seasons Icelandic experience, said her little sister is just as competitive.

Shes not better than me right now, said Samantha, a 5-8 guard. But, skill-wise, she has potential. Ive been trying to help her with her shot. When we play, it gets heated.

Vanessa, though, doesnt back down. Shes played against older girls her whole life, and she has learned to rebound and take care of the ball against intense pressure.

Shes a rare freshman who understands how hard you have to work at this level.

-- St. Mary's coach Curtis Ekmark
on Vanessa Murphy

Shes a strong kid, Curtis Ekmark said. She goes to the boards well and is not afraid of contact.

Ekmark said he has seen Murphy improve dramatically since the first day of practice, attributing that to her intelligence, her competitiveness and the fact that she is working against so many talented players in practice every day.

The coach also has another top freshman, reserve point guard Jessica Hodge-Green, whom he said is already one of the best on-ball defenders in the state.

Shes maybe the quickest kid we have in our program, Ekmark said.

Murphy, meanwhile, figures to get major-college recruiting attention fairly soon. If so, it would follow a trend.

Last season, St. Marys graduated two players who signed with Division I colleges: 6-3 forward Cortnee Walton (Louisville) and 5-11 guard Shilpa Tummala (Harvard).

In addition, former St. Marys star Davellyn Whyte is a three-time All-Pac-12 player at Arizona. Add the six current recruits, and its truly an impressive list.

Weve had so many college prospects come through here that I can tell when I have another one, said Ekmark, who is in his sixth season as coach of the Knights.

I dont think [scouts] have seen Vanessa yet because she didnt play on elite club teams last summer, but when they see her, they will find a gem.

Kids on our team love her. Every time I yell at her, she giggles. Its not disrespectful. Its just her nature.

Its pretty tough to get mad at her because shes such a positive girl.