UCSD's Unassuming Scoring Machine

Jan. 26, 2007

By Stephen Zerdelian

Special to CSTV.com


Standing 5-foot-8, Leora Juster doesn't necessarily strike innocent onlookers as a dominating basketball player. Watching her during warm-ups for the University of California-San Diego, Juster hardly seems like a player that can score in virtually any manner possible, yet she does.


The senior guard became her school's all-time leading scorer as a junior and has started this year in the best form of her career. It's all in an effort to get her team as far as possible in the NCAA Division II tournament because despite her personal scoring exploits, Juster is all about team success. UCSD made the NCAA field last year for the second time in her three years on campus but lost in the first round to Seattle Pacific, 62-57, leaving a slightly bitter taste. A subsequent defeat to SPU this season has only served to intensify Juster's desire to return to, and succeed at, the regional tournament.


"We're trying to get better every day, since it's a long season," said Juster. "It feels especially long since we lost in the first round last year and we just want to get back there again. In a way, we're almost practicing for one game (the first NCAA contest). We've been learning a lot through everything this year, going through the peaks and valleys of a season. Now it's a matter of staying on the peaks as long as we can and getting out of the valleys quickly when we're in them."


Last season, Juster collected awards faster than rainwater in a draining pool. California Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Year, Daktronics Regional Player of the Year, Daktronics Second Team All-American, WBCA/Kodak West Regional All-Star and WBCA/Kodak honorable mention All-American were just a few of the accolades she picked up while passing Ali Ginn for the all-time Triton scoring record. Entering this campaign Juster had 1,332 points; at her current pace 2000 points is not out of the question.  From the day she stepped into Triton blue and gold, Juster has been productive, averaging 11.4, 14.7 and 22.0 points a game through her first three seasons, starting all but two of the 95 games she participated in during those campaigns.


One of the top scorers in the nation, Juster (currently at 23.6 points a game) has excelled in matchups with other strong clubs this year. Against 6th-ranked Chico State she went off for 30 points. In a key win over then-No. 14 Western Washington, she scored 34 points, including a perfect 13-13 at the foul line, and ladled out a career-best 10 assists. Juster notched a career-high-equaling 37 points (and corralled a personal-best 11 rebounds) during a tight victory against No. 13 West Texas A&M, helping the Tritons overcome a 17-point deficit to prevail. In that WTA&M contest Juster bettered the output fellow-All-American Emily Brister by two points, a duel fit for a grand stage.


Think Juster is merely a volume scorer, where she racks up numbers by hoisting tons of shots without regard to the overall team concept? Well, she does put the ball up a lot, but with astonishing accuracy, especially for a guard. Having already won CCAA Player of the Week honors five times this year, she shoots 55% from the field, 48% from three-point territory and 78% at the foul line, meaning there are few ways she cannot hurt defenses. Throw in the facts that Juster plays over 36 minutes a game, grabs 5.6 rebounds an outing, hands out four assists a tilt and snags two steals a game and you have a player opponents simply get sick and tired of seeing.


Head coach Janell Jones guided UCSD to a 23-5 record last year, her first in California, arriving after five years as mentor at NAIA powerhouse Oklahoma City University, where she won a pair of national championships and posted a sparkling 175-14 record. Where does Juster rank in her estimation?


"Leora fits into the style of basketball we played there (at OCU) and use here, in that she's versatile and can do so many things offensively," says Jones, who took over for legendary UCSD coach Judy Malone. "She's hard to contain; it takes two or three defenders to stop her, and yet she still makes so many clutch shots. Leora's a rhythm player and she can be really effective when she gets into that rhythm during a game."


Not only does her coach and opponents know how prolific Juster is, her teammates are more than aware of it. "I am glad I don't have to defend Leora because she just embarrasses people," said teammate Alexis Mezzetta. "She can score any way, drive, pull up for a jumper or hit a three. This is what makes her impossible to stop. She also does an awesome job finishing around the hoop and just when you feel like you have stopped her drive she throws up this shot that just bounces in. Bottom line, we are all happy that Leora is on our team."


Juster's Tritons have negotiated their stringent early season schedule to post an 11-3 record to this point, including a 7-2 mark in league action. Playing in the CCAA, 25th-ranked UCSD is chasing rival Chico State, the only team ahead of them in conference play and in the most recent NCAA West regional poll.  They'll meet the Wildcats, who dealt them a 79-69 setback on Dec. 1, in a nationally-televised game on CSTV Feb. 3, with both revenge and the future on their minds.


"The fact it's on national TV makes it a little more exciting, and maybe easier to get motivated for," Juster said. "We know we have a tough schedule but we're looking to keep it simple and prepare for each game as it comes."


Jones echoes those thoughts, saying "They're (Chico) a great team with a lot of weapons. It's a terrific rivalry and having it on national television means even more exposure for our conference and region."


On the difficulty of their schedule, Jones knew it might cost the team a few wins but it would make them better in the long run. "We want to be challenged by playing tough teams early, so we can see where we are. It helps us figure out what we need to work on as the season goes along, because we're not quite where we want to be yet."


The Tritons have more than a few others in their arsenal to help Juster and take the full brunt of the production off her shoulders.


"Hillary Hansen has stepped up her game, taking the pressure off Leora as a scorer," Jones says, recognizing the contribution of the 6-foot senior who tosses in almost 16 points a game. "Michelle Osier contributes a lot, especially off the glass, and Meaghan Noud gives us a lot off the bench."


Juster, by nature, is one to deflect her role on the team and lavish praise on others. "There's really not much differentiation between the players at practice. It's always very competitive, a very good group to play with." To her, that's what makes the college experience so rewarding. "You need people you can celebrate with, cry with, and enjoy it all with, otherwise it's worthless," she opines.


A California native, Juster lettered in track and field as well as tennis at Venice High School, earning league MVP honors in hoops as a senior. "I've been an athlete ever since I could walk," said Juster. "But I wasn't really serious about the game until I hurt myself skateboarding in high school. I figured I should make basketball No. 1 at that point."


While Juster is not thinking much beyond the current basketball season right now, she has options once she gets her degree in Mathematics/Secondary Education. Does professional basketball ever enter the picture? "I'd love to experience a new country and if I can do that through basketball, I'd like to," she says.


Jones gives her star high marks as a person as well as a player.


"Leora's very humble and unassuming; in fact she is one of the most humble players I've ever been associated with," Jones said. "Her teammates love to play with her and as good as she is on the floor, she's still one of the funniest and most likeable players I've ever seen."


UCSD plays their next four games away from home, starting this weekend and culminating in the rematch with Chico State. After that they finish the regular season with seven of their last nine games on their home floor, the spiffy RIMAC Arena (capacity of 5000 for hoops). The CCAA does not hold a postseason tournament (the regular season champion gets the NCAA tournament automatic bid) but unless things go very much awry, the Tritons are looking at their third NCAA bid in Juster's four years. This time, they're zeroed in on making their stay a long one. With high-scoring Leora Juster on their side, it'd be wise to keep an eye on the team from sunny San Diego.




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