It was a normal, sunny day last summer in Florida. But it was no ordinary phone call. Since when do coaches call in the offseason just to catch up?
Jessica Dickson knew something was up. Trouble was, she didn't know she was being set up. Or that the next few words out of Jose Fernandez's mouth might make as big an impact on her basketball career as anything she had ever heard or done before.
Fernandez, Dickson's coach at South Florida, where she would soon be starting her junior year, had made a few phone calls. The national writers he spoke to saw Dickson's All-American potential. But the few downfalls in Dickson's game were costing her national recognition. Her shooting percentage was too low. And she committed too many turnovers.
"That definitely motivated me," Dickson said. "That was the best thing [coach] could have done."
Working hard, according to Dickson's coaches and peers, is nothing new for her. But Dickson does her best when challenged, when she has something specific to focus on. Give her a goal and watch her go. Like the time someone said she couldn't break her own coach's scoring record at Vanguard High School in Ocala, Fla. Dickson not only surpassed the mark, she obliterated it, capping her prep career with 2,634 points, 621 points more than the previous record.
Similarly, Fernandez's conversation with Dickson lit a fire inside her. And the 5-foot-11 forward who thrives on motivation ran with it. From that day on, Dickson says she was "in the gym constantly," working out and "thinking about what the writers had said." Alternating between jump shots and free throws until she had made 150 total baskets, she shot the ball until her arm grew tired.
All the repetition has paid off. South Florida is 11-6 overall and only 1-3 in the Big East, but Dickson has delivered some eye-opening performances. Though she remains relatively under the radar, Dickson has become one of the best juniors -- if not wing players -- in the nation, notching six performances of at least 30 points this season to average a Big East-best 25.1 points, almost nine points more than her sophomore average (Rutgers All-American Cappie Pondexter ranks second in the conference at 21.9 points per game). Dickson also is shooting 46 percent from the field, which ranks ninth in the Big East and is more than five percentage points better than last season.
Even more impressive, however, are Dickson's numbers against some of the top teams in the country. Four of the Bulls' six losses have come against ranked teams. But Dickson averaged 25 points -- including two of those 30-plus performances -- against UNC, DePaul, Michigan State, LSU and Rutgers, all of which were ranked in the top 15 when they played South Florida. Dickson, whose mom, Kathy Mack, drives 90 miles one way to every home game, notched 35 points in South Florida's 79-77 overtime victory over DePaul on Dec. 7. She then came one point short of her career high, with 36 points on 11 of 23 shooting (including a 5 of 12 effort from 3-point range), in a loss last week against Rutgers.
"You can't keep the ball out of [Dickson's] hands," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "She works extremely hard to get the ball, and when she gets it, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop her."
Still, Dickson's improved range might be her biggest accomplishment. She has always been a talented slasher with a great handle, but this season Dickson has added a 3-pointer that she will hit off the pass or dribble. She sank just eight 3-pointers and shot 21 percent from downtown as a freshman, then went 36-for-113 (32 percent) as a sophomore from beyond the arc. This season, she already has hit 43 3-pointers -- that's just one fewer than the past two seasons combined -- and has jumped seven percentage points to 39 percent accuracy from 3-point range.
Dickson, an All-Conference USA first-team pick last season and the league's 2002-03 freshman of the year, also ranks second in the Big East in free-throw shooting, sinking 81 of 93 attempts (87 percent). Last season, she led C-USA at the foul line with 83 percent accuracy and became the first man or woman in South Florida history to score 1,000 career points prior to the end of her sophomore season.
The next step, of course, is leading South Florida past some of the traditional powers in the Big East -- and snapping a painful three-game losing streak. And working on that turnover average, which remains at 2.6 this season.
Still, no matter how many turnovers she might commit, Dickson appears to finally be getting the national attention she deserves. And this time, the question is whether her opponents are up to the challenge.
"She's virtually unstoppable," said one coach of a Top 25 program. "The best advice is to keep her from touching the ball."
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.