ANCHORAGE - Dorena Bingham thinks it's a slam dunk that Juneau basketball player Talisa Rhea was voted as the Anchorage Daily News Girls Prep Athlete of the Year.
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Bingham, the East High coach, saw Rhea's talent blossom two summers ago during a tournament in San Diego in which she coached Rhea on the Alaska Youth Basketball Association Girls High School Select Team. That squad was "getting drilled," down 18 points in the first half to a California team.
Rhea was getting drilled too, by an opponent.
"Who are you?" the player taunted, making fun of players from Alaska and Rhea's curly red hair, which a headband barely holds in check. More trash talk continued up and down the court until Rhea couldn't stand any more.
"I looked at Talisa at halftime and I said, 'You are not going to say anything to her,'" Bingham said. "'You are going to do everything to her.'"
Rhea followed orders.
In the second half, she unleashed a flurry of 3-pointers, free throws, runners in the lane and a couple hard body shots off picks. College coaches there to scout returned to the stands to catch the comeback.
"The great players separate themselves by being able to put a team on their back," Bingham said. "Thirty-one points and 16 rebounds later, we are up by 10."
Team Alaska won the game, and Rhea hasn't been the same since. "That summer, I hadn't done a whole lot," Rhea said June 21 by telephone. "I had been consistent, but I didn't have a breakout game. That gave me confidence that I could play with down-south teams."
That confidence, coupled with Rhea's array of skills, has been growing ever since and will culminate this fall on the court for Oregon State of the Pac-10 Conference. The move puts Rhea among a handful of the Alaska women who've gone Division I, such as Stanford's Azella Perryman and Ohio State's Laura Ingham, both Bingham products.
"She may not be as quick (as them), but she's just as smart and heady," Bingham said. "She will be fantastic (in college). Give her her first year to get used to everything, and just watch her take off."
Rhea brings a reliable shot, superb passing ability and good size (6 feet, 155 pounds) to the court.
"She's big guard, which everyone wants," Bingham said. "She has court savvy. She can see it before it happens."
Rhea said she will likely be a combo guard at Oregon State, helping to run the offense and provide scoring options for a team that may be in the final stages of rebuilding under third-year head coach LaVonda Wagner.
Before heading to Oregon in mid-July for a summer jump on classes and workouts, the 18-year-old can savor what she did at Juneau. Last season she averaged 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists and led Juneau to the state championship game against Wasilla in Sullivan Arena.
In that game, Juneau surged from 13 points down to within 51-48 before Rhea missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. But that didn't erase the memories of Juneau's 2005 state title or the three appearances in the state title game during Rhea's four-year varsity career.
She's carried the Crimson Bears her entire high school career, which is one reason she earned Player of the Year accolades.
Rhea outmatched a strong field led by Chugiak sophomore Alev Kelter, who helped the Mustangs capture a state title in soccer, and excelled in flag football and boys hockey; and Carley Butcher, a junior for South's soccer team who led the Wolverines to the state title match. "The environment we have in Juneau for basketball that our coach (Lesslie Knight) instills here - that's what I will remember the most," Rhea said. "We had four really good years."
The rest of the Rhea resume includes three selections as the Class 4A Alaska girls player of the year, four appearances on the all-state team, and three all-conference selections in soccer.
"When I first watched her as a freshman, I compared her to (WNBA all-star) Sue Bird because of her ability to control the tempo of the game," Knight said. "She can hit the three-pointer, go left and right, can really pass and anticipate the openings.
This weekend, Rhea is in Oregon - not for school but to help the Crimson Bears in two offseason tournaments and at a team camp. She will help coach former teammates and get used to the idea that she'll never don the Juneau red and black again.
"It's definitely a big change," she said. "Playing at open gyms and stuff, it's hard to take in that I am not a (Juneau) player anymore." But she has the memory of that time in California when she took her coach's advice and elevated her game. Bingham thinks those intangibles will equal success in college.
"There's a big difference between high school basketball and the Pac-10," Rhea said. "Hopefully, I will be ready for the adjustment."
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