There are moments, watching Southern Oregon guard Melissa Sweat, when fans are suddenly reminded that, oh yeah, she's not just another NAIA basketball player. She's that NCAA Division I transfer from San Diego State who briefly attended Ole Miss before landing in Ashland. She's the one with the handle. She can shoot, too. Oh yeah, she's a player.
One of those moments came early in the first half on Dec. 15, as Southern Oregon was playing College of Idaho. The visiting Coyotes led the Raiders 11-2 when Sweat took a pass near the 3-point line, used a screen by Allison Gida to get past a defender, dribbled behind her back to escape the help, then finally crossed over to avoid a swath of errant hands on her way through a now vacant path to the key. She finished the dance with an easy mini-jump shot, which splashed through for two.
WHO: A junior guard on the Southern Oregon women's basketball team.
The gorgeous drive was captured live by SOU's live video streaming service and can still be found in the school's video archives. What the somewhat grainy video does not reveal, however, is Sweat's reaction. But chances are the gifted junior guard was smiling.
And that's why, it turns out, that Sweat is playing basketball for the Southern Oregon Raiders instead of the University of Mississippi Rebels or the San Diego State Aztecs. She's having fun playing basketball again, which is good news for the Raiders.
"I like to have fun, I like to smile on the court and I like to joke on the court," Sweat said. "Basketball is a game to me, so it shouldn't be all serious."
Sweat's road to SOU was a well-worn path blazed by countless former high school stars looking for a fresh start at a smaller school, and to examine her biography is to fully grasp SOU's fortune.
Even in the high-stakes world of Division I women's basketball, there are plenty of last-minute sign-ons content to pocket their scholarship, sit on the end of the bench and collect a degree four years hence. That wasn't Sweat. The 5-foot-10 left-handed combo-guard was one of the most highly recruited players in the country as a senior at Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Calif., where she was a two-time Bakersfield Californian Girls Basketball Player of the Year and led the Mustangs to the 2009 CIF Central Section Division I title with 24 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game.
She eventually committed to San Diego State, where she was tabbed the 2010 Mountain West Conference preseason freshman of the year and later became the first Aztec freshman in three years to start an opener. Her freshman campaign didn't turn out to be a huge success — she averaged 3.9 points in about 14 minutes a game, shot 46 percent from the field and was one of six Aztecs to play in all 29 games — but impressive performances against UNLV (eight points, three rebounds) and UC Irvine (seven points, four rebounds) suggested a promising future.
But that's when basketball stopped becoming fun. Sweat took a step back as a sophomore at SDSU, averaging 3.6 points and 1.5 rebounds in about 12 minutes a game while starting in seven of the 27 games she played.
After that, she started looking for a new home.
"I guess I just wanted a new experience, a new outlook on basketball," Sweat says of her decision to leave San Diego State. "(San Diego State) was cool, it was a good experience for me, but I think I was just looking for something new.
"I think I found myself my freshman and sophomore year. I started to find myself and just figured out who I was as a person and as a basketball player."
The search initially took Sweat to Oxford, Mississippi. She was at Ole Miss for two months before realizing that it also wasn't quite right. That's when Sweat took the advice of former high school teammate and current Southern Oregon forward Alexi Smith and visited SOU.
That was in September, only days before school was about to begin. Sweat didn't have much time to make a decision. It turns out, she didn't need any. She clicked with the team and coach Lynn Kennedy, and decided to stay.
"I feel like I was comfortable from the first time I got around (the Raiders) actually," Sweat said. "It's different because we don't spend much time together here in the NAIA, but I feel like we're closer than we were at (San Diego State) even though we spent way more time together. We're a pretty close team."
So far, Sweat has been everything Kennedy expected and more. Heading into tonight's game against Evergreen, she leads the Cascade Collegiate Conference in scoring (20.5 ppg) while also contributing 4.9 rebounds per game. She's shooting 57 percent from the floor, good for second in the conference, including 35 percent (18-for-31) from 3-point land.
The only downside is, after winning 12 of their first 13 games, the Raiders (13-5) have struggled in league play, going 3-4.
What's the problem? Kennedy says it comes down to attitude.
"I think we've got to change our mentality a little bit and just get back to it," he said, "and that's what we've been talking about. Do the things we're good at — play better defense, block out and run, because we can run and we can score."
Sweat agrees, and believes that the Raiders, who are currently tied for fifth in the Cascade Conference standings, are about to start another winning streak.
"I think we know what we need to do now," she said. "We see the games that we've lost in the past and we did put that in the past, but it's still on our hearts so we need to get them back.
"We know we're going to make it to nationals, but we want to go far. We have so much talent on the team and we're still figuring out how to use it, how to work together. I think we'll come together. We're going to pick it up. The season's going to be a brighter scene from now on."