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Don’t overlook Cooper

Wed., Dec. 21, 2011

Eastern Washington University’s Chene Cooper leads the Big Sky in assists.
Eastern Washington University’s Chene Cooper leads the Big Sky in assists.

When Chene Cooper is on the basketball court, she’s almost always the center of attention.

It starts because she’s the furthest thing there is from a center – they don’t make 5-foot posts in college basketball.

“My teammates don’t notice I’m small until they stand next to me,” she said. “It’s not about size to me, it’s about heart.”

That’s obvious as Cooper has frustrated those expected to dominate her and thrown her body fearlessly into the battle.

Brianne Ryan is making the headlines for Eastern Washington (5-7) with her 18.8 scoring average, second in the Big Sky Conference heading into tonight’s last nonconference game against Idaho (4-7) at Reese Court. It’s Cooper – who is leading the conference at 6.6 assists, to go with her 9.6 points, 2.8 steals and 3.8 rebounds – who is helping make Ryan such a force on offense.

“It’s a disadvantage being small but there are advantages to being small, too, and I think I’ve found those ways to be successful,” Cooper said.

“Crafty” is a word that comes to mind. She’s quick, and being low to the ground makes her tough to guard. On the defensive end her teammates have her back. But maybe her biggest advantage is being underestimated.

“When I first started, I’d walk on court and people would point at me and smile,” she said. “I just wanted to show them I can play. I don’t say much.”

The truth is size, or lack thereof, has never been a factor, at least to Cooper.

“I never really noticed it,” she said. “My family is small. That’s not a surprise. My brothers are small but bigger than me. I always played up. I got used to it. Dad said you can’t teach height, but you can teach skill and work ethic.”

Cooper was a three-sport standout at Lakes High School near Tacoma, also starring in soccer and fastpitch softball. But basketball, which she took up at 3, was her passion.

There was a fair amount of interest in Cooper, but bigger schools often told her they decided to sign a bigger guard. Her AAU and high school coaches, who taught her to be a pest and a vocal leader, continued to encourage her.

“They worked for me,” she said. “They said they can’t hold you down forever.”

EWU coach Wendy Schuller also believed in her and Cooper found the perfect fit.

Cooper’s 396 career assists are fifth on the career list and she is just five steals behind Lisa Comstock’s school record 212.

She received honorable mention all-conference last year when she averaged 11.7 points.

Cooper has also been recognized for her academics as a criminal justice major. She hopes to be an investigator, although she is considering law school with an eye on being a prosecuting attorney.

On tap

Washington State (6-5) is squeezing in a double homecoming for coach June Daughtery.

The Cougars play at her alma mater, No. 11 Ohio State (11-0) on Thursday. Ten years ago she was inducted into the Buckeyes’ Hall of Fame. Tonight she’s going into the Westerville, Ohio, High School Hall of Fame.

“It’s fun,” Daugherty said. “When we went back to the Hall of Fame at Ohio State, it was a great moment. I’m proud to have my family there, my former teammates.”

Gonzaga (9-2), coming off a win over No. 13 Georgia, faces Dayton (5-3) this afternoon in Las Vegas.

Although Georgia has never won a national title, the Bulldogs have only missed two NCAA tournaments, they’ve been to five Final Fours and played in two championship games. Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers has been at the school for almost 40 years.

After Christmas, every team returns to action on Dec. 29.

All but Idaho start conference play, with WSU on its Oregon trip and GU at Portland. Montana State visits EWU, but Montana isn’t matching that swing with a game at Portland State.

The Grizzlies are hosting their holiday tournament and Idaho is part of the field, playing North Dakota on Thursday and Southern Mississippi on Friday.

North Dakota turns around to visit Idaho on Jan. 3.

Tip ins

Junior Brittany Kennedy (Lewis and Clark) made her debut for Florida Gulf Coast on Monday, a 77-53 win over South Carolina-Upstate that was the 300th career win for coach Karl Smesko. Kennedy, who played her first two years at Oregon State, contributed six points and six assists in 26 minutes for the Eagles (7-1, 2-0 in the Atlantic Sun).

Washington State opened the season with a loss at Penn State (ranked No. 16 this week in both polls) and has losses to Gonzaga, ranked 25th in this week’s coaches poll, and Louisville (14th in AP, 12th in coaches poll). Nine of WSU’s 11 nonconference games are against teams that played in the postseason last year. It’s the first time WSU has played three nonconference Top 25 teams.

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