CINCINNATI -- Being the one, as opposed to just one of, carries great responsibility and expectation. It's certainly not for everybody. But it seems to suit Monique Oliver, who the past couple summers has been an elite post prospect but arguably a second or third fiddle on her own team.
Anchoring a more localized version of the old, nationally based West Coast Elite, a team that never quite lived up to its hype or talent, Oliver served notice that this just may be the summer of Mighty Mo. After wrecking Tennessee Flight Silver with 40 points in the semifinals, the 6-foot-3 Long Beach, Calif., star put a 28-point hammer on the Silver Bullets from Long Island during a 66-46 victory in the championship game of the Nike Midwest Showdown.
The renamed, and somewhat re-tooled, West Coast Premier allowed the score to be tied at 46 with 5:29 to play, then ripped off the last 20 points of the game, Oliver touching off the splurge with a pair of layups. Playing Robin to Oliver's Batman, Kaleena Lewis, who is just finishing her freshman year at Mater Dei in Los Angeles, had seven points, including a 3-pointer, during the run and scored 16 of her 21 points during the second half.
The Silver Bullets led for much of the game, but West Coast coach Brian Crichlow said his team wore down the Long Islanders with its size -- read, Mo Oliver.
"Our team looks for her, when we're struggling, to calm everything down," Crichlow said, "and put us back on the straight."
In years past, that role would have fallen to 6-5 Kelsey Bone, the No. 1 player in the 2009 class, or 6-5 Ashley Gayle, who's headed to Texas, or 6-1 Briana Gilbreath, who's bound for USC. And Oliver, obviously talented, would be content to fill in the gaps and stay in the shadows. That approach produced no tournament championships. Oliver had a similar experience at Long Beach Poly, the most talented high-school team in the country that never really could incorporate the Gulliverian newcomer and sometimes paid the price.
West Coast's major reversal of fortunes is no knock on Bone and the others. It's just that this team has newfound clarity. Oliver is the focal point, Lewis is her wingwoman and a cast of talented guards wreak havoc out top defensively, ramp up tempo and get the ball where it's supposed to go.
"She knows we need her to be our biggest option," Lewis said. "She knows teams are going to send two or three players at her, and she knows people are open when she gets the ball. We played together last summer and her getting me the ball is like an instinct now."
Don't look now, but the dragon has been awakened. And what might be a nightmare for the rest of the club circuit is the stuff of national-championship dreams on the next level. For now, the hottest pursuers are: Baylor, Duke, LSU, Maryland, Texas, Texas A&M and USC, according to Oliver.
The posse is likely to get more crowded next month, when the college coaches are allowed back into the show. Oliver obviously is relishing her new role as singular sensation. It is showing in her play. Always powerful on the boxes, she has an added decisiveness down low. She even took higher postups and made nimble dribble moves around smaller but more mobile defenders. She also made numerous finishes on the break, against a guard-driven Silver Bullets team that was no stranger to the fast lane. She took title of the glass and shooed away shots like they were ants at a Memorial Day picnic, helping halt what had been a drag race into the lane by the likes of Ieasia Walker and her ankle-breaking teammates.
As they might say down in Long Beach, there's now a glide in her stride, a dip in her hip. She keeps playing like this, Mighty Mo might be the whole danged mothership.
"The last two years, I haven't really stood out," she said. "I did the little things. Even when two of us would have a good game, it was always the other player who (got the attention). I could have been more selfish, but that's not the way I play. The difference is, I want to be the leader on this team. I want to set a good example for my players. I also like playing the big role because it's going to help me get ready for college."
One no longer is such a lonely number for Mo Oliver. It now is a demarcation of owning the pecking order, of being all in and left out no longer.
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the McDonald's All-American and Parade All-American Selection Committees, he formerly coached girls club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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