LOS ANGELES - In the giant concrete bowl that is the L.A. Coliseum, the stars on the sidelines Saturday nearly outshined the galaxy of talent assembled for the USC-Ohio State clash on the football field. Denzel Washington, the Oscar-winning actor, was there, as was actor Henry Winkler, aka "The Fonz," and Nick Lachey, the singer and former "Mr. Jessica Simpson," among other Hollywood luminaries. The NBA was well represented by the likes of Greg Oden, Amare Stoudamire and Isiah Thomas.
Rubbing elbows with them all was Monique Oliver, girl's basketball player. "It was amazing, I must say," she said of the pre-game scene of USC's eventual, 35-3 romp over the Buckeyes. The No. 6 prospect in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred for 2009 was on an official visit at the University of Southern California. And, as she later put it, "it just felt right," so she committed to Trojans coach Mark Trakh on Sunday, giving him an elite post prospect to place among a group of perimeter players as talented as any in the country.
A year ago, obscured in the long shadows of much more ballyhooed teammates on the club circuit, as well as Long Beach Poly High School, Oliver may not have felt as emboldened to make sure a move. After all, the powerful, 6-foot-3 post scheduled visits to Maryland, Duke and Texas, and went into the weekend determined to keep those dates. She'd even called her best friend, Chelsea Hopkins, who is a freshman guard with the Blue Devils, telling her she was looking forward to their reunion.
"I never thought I could do something like this last year," said Oliver, whose family moved from Las Vegas to Long Beach before her junior season last year. "Not where I was – no." The difference, a year later, she said is that "people expect me to be on top and more sure my teammates are in line. They basically depend on me and actually have confidence in me."
A year ago, Oliver basically was an understudy on her club team to Kelsey Bone, the No. 2 prospect in 2009, and Ashley Gayle, who is entering her freshman year at Texas. At Poly, she was a second fiddle, even in her own domain, the painted area, to Jasmine Dixon, a 6-2 wing who's now at Rutgers. Her personality, pleasant but quiet, reflected her status on the floor.
The player the Trojans are getting is more determined and confident, as well as more skilled. ESPN HoopGurlz named Oliver one of the top five performers at the Nike National Skills Academy, and she was one of the most consistently elite, occasionally dominant, performers all summer. So the person USC is getting is equally transformed - more demonstrative and gregarious.
Oliver even has a ready-made comfort zone at USC - the Gilbreath sisters, Stefanie and Briana, her teammates from the West Coast Elite, then West Coast Premier club teams. "We have good chemistry together," she noted.
Not that she demands support anymore, or shrinks away from any responsibility. A spring and summer of being a centerpiece proved to Oliver that it is a situation that suits her. "I think I can get it done," she said. "I'm just ready to accept any challenges."
As an eighth grader, Monique Oliver dreamed of following in the footsteps of WNBA star Lisa Leslie by attending her alma mater, Southern Cal. Four years later, she stepped on Leslie's old turf, meandered the tailgate parties that jammed the USC campus, listened to the Trojan band play "Conquest" a few dozen times or so, bonded with teammates past and future and, mostly, drank in the transcendent star power that radiated in the Coliseum this past weekend and felt she belonged.
"So I just did it," she said. Too long an outsider, Mo Oliver went inside and committed to USC, a place where she believes she can further blossom and continue her transformation.
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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 email@example.com.