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No longer the understudy, it's Quinn city at UCLA

THE QUICK DISH

By Graham Hays, ESPN.com

Noelle Quinn

UCLA is 4-4 and fell out of the Top 25 rankings, but senior Noelle Quinn is one of the nation's top players. (Darryl Dennis/Icon SMI)

LOS ANGELES -- At first glance, Los Angeles seems like a strange place to find a senior star playing in the shadows. But any city with as many bright lights as this one is bound to have its share of shadows.

UCLA's Noelle Quinn is really a perfect fit for a town where nothing is ever quite what it seems. On the court, the senior sizzles, dropping no-look passes on a whim and smoothly strutting down the court with the confidence of a young Antoine Walker (when that could still be construed as a compliment). She passes, she rebounds and she shoots, all with the same cool assassin's demeanor that Diana Taurasi perfected.

She's just good. And she knows it.

So who is this person sitting quietly in a deserted interview room after a recent game and talking about needing to be more vocal? Who is this mild-mannered young woman, who loves buying sheet music and playing her mother's piano, smiling shyly and patiently answering questions in a voice that wouldn't draw a second glance in a library the week before finals?

"I have to be more vocal," Quinn said. "I'm a quiet person, but on the court, it's kind of a different animal."

It turns out Quinn is just playing a role on the court, adopting the mannerisms and affects of a character she has spent more than a decade honing. The wannabes serving up lattes and muffins in coffee shops from Long Beach to Santa Monica ought to take lessons.

No longer the understudy to Lisa Willis and Nikki Blue (both of whom have gone on to the WNBA), it's a role Quinn has to carry off without a hitch if a young UCLA team is going to return to the NCAA Tournament. And as evidenced by a 4-4 start that knocked the Bruins out of the Top 25, even a perfect performance may end up being nothing more than a bittersweet soliloquy as she exits the stage.

Quinn was UCLA's leading scorer last season (18.1 ppg), scoring more points than any Bruin in 15 seasons, as UCLA raced to a 21-11 record and battled Purdue for 40 minutes before bowing out in a memorable second-round encounter on the Boilermakers' home court in the NCAA Tournament. As her 15.0 ppg and other stats suggest, her role has changed dramatically this season. She trails fellow senior Lindsey Pluimer in scoring and is shooting just 37 percent from the floor, but Quinn accounts for 42 percent of the team's assists while maintaining a respectable assist-turnover ratio (1.5) and averaging 5.5 rebounds per game.

"It's totally different," Quinn said. "First of all, Nikki was our point guard and ran the show, Lisa was our shooter and our defensive specialist and did a little bit of everything. So I have the ball in my hands a lot, which is a different role for me. I'm used to it, because when I was growing up I played point a little bit, but not only do I have to play point, I have to rebound, I have to score and I have to be a leader, a vocal leader and tell people where to go."

Of the eight players averaging double-digit minutes in UCLA's rotation, four are either freshmen or sophomores, and a fifth, senior Shaina Zaidi, is playing the first significant minutes of her career. That leaves Quinn, Pluimer and three-year role player Amanda Livingston as the experienced hands for coach Kathy Olivier.

Pluimer, who is too often forced to play out of position in the post, is a versatile wing player with height and a good midrange game, but Quinn is the foundation and the first three stories of a four-story house. And as frustrating as it might seem, she understands that for the time being, part of being that foundation is not wavering in the lessons learned during her first three seasons.

"I think I've learned the game a little bit more," Quinn said. "I always took pride in the fact that I was a smart player, but I think college, aside from going to school and having a balance as a student-athlete, I've just learned the game a little more. Kind of wait for my defenders to mess up. Not so much being on the attack a lot of the time but just waiting."

The problem this year is that understanding the game doesn't necessarily guarantee answers. Sometimes you simply grow to understand that there's not much you can do.

Quinn's optimism remains unbowed, however, and there's some reason for that. In sophomore Chinyere Ibekwe and freshman Monique Alexander, the Bruins have a pair of post prospects that any coach would be lucky to have. Alexander remains a very raw product (more turnovers than field goals in her first eight games), but Ibekwe has gone from averaging 5.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.4 minutes per game as a freshman to averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game this season.

"For the posts, I think it's just a matter of confidence," Quinn said. "We've never had such big bodies as the ones we do this year, and that was kind of a struggle for us in the past. And they're so capable, though they're young. I think playing these games is going to give them confidence. And when we're peaking, then you'll probably see it change like they're going to be beasts down there. But I'm excited for our posts. … Monique is a big target. I like targets, I like passing the ball. So when she's on the floor, I just want her to be big, because she's like 6-6."

In a recent loss against Oklahoma, Alexander tried a baseline jumper that sailed several feet over the basket on one possession. The next time UCLA had the ball, Quinn waited for Alexander to establish position on the block, executed a perfect entry pass and commanded a suddenly tentative Alexander to go the basket. For a player with every reason to be frustrated at being asked to spend her final season coaching on the floor and every reason to think of her own numbers in preparation for a WNBA career, it was a remarkable moment of commitment to her coach and her program.

"That's one of the things I've been working on as a leader," Quinn said. "Because a lot of times, I just want everyone to be on the level I'm at, but I have to realize that not everyone is going to be there right away. So with Mo, she needs confidence. She had a mismatch, so I'm telling her to go, go, go. … That's my project, because she has so much potential but she gets down on herself sometimes. But she does great."

Spoken like a leader.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

NOTABLE NUMBER

18 Pat Summitt might have left North Carolina with Tennessee's first loss of the season, but the Lady Vols' longtime coach didn't go home empty-handed.

Summitt has six NCAA titles on her résumé, and when compared to most of her peers, she's at the top of the list. That is, except when she's rubbing elbows with UNC women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance.

Summitt, known as a tireless learner, asked to sit in on Dorrance's locker room pregame speech as the Tar Heels prepared to take the field in the women's soccer national championship game Sunday in Cary, N.C. In town to face the UNC women's hoops team later that night in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., Summitt -- dressed head-to-toe in an orange Tennessee sweat suit -- listened in as Dorrance addressed his team just moments before the Tar Heels kicked off the title game against Notre Dame.

During a pregame interview Sunday night at Carmichael Auditorium, Summitt told ESPN's Rebecca Lobo she asked to listen in because Summitt "wants to learn from the best." And that just might be Dorrance. On Sunday, his Tar Heels collected their 18th NCAA title. In 28 seasons, Dorrance's teams are 629-28-18.

So what did Summitt, who said she has known Dorrance for some time and just finished reading his second book, take away from the locker room talk?

"His speech was serious with the right amount of humor," Summitt told Lobo. "Even before a national championship game, his humor struck me because he had the right balance."

The adoration appears to be mutual.

"For our kids, a lot of them when they were kids were basketball players as well," Dorrance told Lobo. "So it was a thrill for all of us to have her in there and we loved it." -- ESPN.com