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How Andrea Garner became a basketball star for Penn State

Sunday, February 13, 2000

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Andrea Garner still keeps a copy of the tape that started it all. It's nothing fancy. Her mother shot it with a camera she received for a Christmas present.

Andrea Garner is averaging 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season for No. 6 Penn State. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

Donna Garner knew that her daughter was a pretty good basketball player -- how else would Masterman High School, which didn't even have a varsity basketball team until Andrea was a freshman, have moved all the way up to the first division of Philadelphia high school basketball? But she also knew that Masterman, the city's magnet school for academically gifted and talented students, didn't have enough of an athletic reputation to attract college recruiters.

So one day in the fall of Andrea's senior year, Donna went to a shoot-around at Villanova University and perched in the balcony above the gym floor. She filmed several of Andrea's games.

Donna then sent them to schools for which Andrea said she would like to play basketball. It was a long shot, at best -- most collegiate programs had been scouting the top high school players for years, and the early signing period ended in just a few weeks.

But from those rough beginnings, courtesy of a few twists of fate, came one of the top players in women's college basketball.

Now Garner is the leading scorer and rebounder for No. 6 Penn State, which paid attention to Garner's tape only after two players it was recruiting chose other schools. Her high school retired her number; she was the first athlete from Masterman to earn an athletic scholarship. She has a chance to finish her career among the top five scorers and rebounders in Penn State women's basketball history.

"That kid has a great sense of pride," Penn State Coach Rene Portland said. "She has a swagger. She likes to be good, she likes that she's picked preseason player of the year. Is it hard? Yeah, it's hard. She says it's not important, but I don't know. I like Dre's pride. I like when she doesn't play well, she'll come in and work at it. She doesn't have two bad games in a row."

Garner began her senior season by being named the Big Ten's Preseason Player of the Year, and she is hoping to end it in her hometown, and the Women's Final Four in Philadelphia.

To be in such a position after barely getting a college scholarship? Even Garner can't believe it sometimes.

"I watch that game now," she said, "and I think 'Oh God, what did they see?' "

It's all academic

Portland said it was simple, really.

"I think you're interested in any tall post player -- there's not enough out there," she said, laughing. "Even the biggest dork in America can go anyplace."

Which doesn't exactly describe the 6-foot-3 Garner, who comes from a family of athletes.

Most of her uncles played basketball. A cousin played for the women's team at the University of San Francisco. Another cousin, Courtney Wallace, played on the Duke men's basketball team, and still another, Charlie Garner, is a running back for the San Francisco 49ers.

Athletics weren't a priority, however, for Donna Garner. Academics were, and that's why she sent Andrea and her older sister, Orien, to private school despite the expense. As the costs escalated, Donna decided to see if she could get her children into Masterman, known as the best of Philadelphia's public schools.

Donna sent in Orien's application, only to discover at an orientation meeting that more than 2,000 fifth-graders had applied for only 500 slots. When Orien made the cut, Andrea's acceptance two years later was easier to secure. "It was just one of those things," Donna said. "A blessing, really."

Attending such a good school made for a long day. The Garners live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, northwest of Center City, where Masterman is located. Orien and Andrea's commute took at least an hour.

They left home early, to catch the 7:27 a.m. bus, which deposited them at the subway station, where they boarded a train. Then they walked four blocks to Masterman. They didn't get home from school until around 6 p.m., when it was dark.

"I was afraid to walk home all by myself," Andrea said. "I used to look at all the cracks on the sidewalk."

So when she found a way to get a ride to school, she took it -- even though that meant getting up earlier than usual. When she was in the sixth grade, the school started basketball teams for its lower school students. Most of Andrea's friends decided to try out. Knowing that practices would be held before school and that her mom would be happy to drop her off, Garner decided to play.

Even though Donna left for work at 6:30 a.m., meaning Andrea got to school so early that sometimes she napped on the steps before practice. And even though Andrea had never even held a basketball in her hand.

When her daughter made the team -- Masterman doesn't cut players -- Donna figured it was her duty to attend games.

"They were on the floor more than they were running up and down the court," Donna said, laughing. "I was like, 'What is going on here?' The scores would be 9-6. I said, 'Gee whiz, this is awful.' But I smiled, and every time there was a game, if I could make it, I would go. And she just kept working and got better and better."

Every chance she got, Garner was on the playground or in the gym. "Growing up in the city, there were lots of good girls playing on the courts," Garner said. "I looked up to them. That made me want to go to the gym more."

When Garner was a freshman, Masterman started its varsity program. The team was placed into the lowest of the three divisions; like English soccer, teams move up and down among divisions depending on their performances.

After just one season at the bronze level, Masterman moved up to silver. And during that season, Garner's sophomore year, Masterman advanced all the way to the city's final four -- a first for a second-division team.

That performance moved Masterman into the gold division for Garner's junior and senior years. She averaged 22.3 points, 17.1 rebounds and 6.0 blocks over her career, earning all-city honors three times, all-area honors three times and all-state honors once.

Masterman Coach Don Woods said he's never had a player work harder.

"One time I remember, over Christmas vacation we called a practice," Wood said. "There was a snowstorm. The only people who made it were me, two kids who lived within walking distance, and Andrea."

A whirlwind experience

Despite her accolades, Garner wasn't sold on playing college basketball.

"Basketball was not my life," she said. "I was going to college no matter what -- my mom was making me."

Still, the Garners figured they had little to lose by sending out the videotapes.

While waiting to hear, Donna called Hampton University, a traditionally black Division II school in Virginia, which invited the Garners for an official visit. "I was really excited," Donna said. "Gee whiz, we've got an offer here. We got somebody interested."

Then everything snowballed. Maryland called, wanting to bring Garner to campus. Penn State, which had said it wasn't interested because it was recruiting two higher-profile post players, called back when neither accepted scholarships.

The result was a whirlwind recruiting trip the weekend before the early signing date -- three schools in three days. After a day each at Hampton, Maryland and Penn State, the Garners went back to Philadelphia with just two days to deliberate before the early signing period ended.

"You don't really get a feel of everybody," Garner said. "You just go with your gut, really, and hope you made the right decision."

Donna didn't want her daughter to wait to decide; she was afraid that come spring, the offers would no longer be available. And so Garner picked Penn State.

"Before, I used to say it was because of the academics," she said. "But they were ranked No. 5 or No. 8 in the country. The rest of the schools were all Division II or Ivy League. I wanted to play with the best."

Exceeding expectations

Or at least be a part of the best. Woods assumed Penn State would redshirt Garner, and Garner herself didn't expect to play much early in her career. She had never lifted weights, never done conditioning runs -- she figured she had a lot of learn before she could play Division I basketball.

"I would have been content to sit on the bench and just get my education paid for," Garner said. "Actually, that's probably a lie. By the end of my career, I wanted to be playing."

Portland considered Garner a project. But when junior college transfer Em Clements, the projected starter at center, had to sit out the first four games because she played briefly for a semi-pro team in her native Australia, Garner got the call to start.

Much to everyone's shock.

"When I called my sister in California, whose daughter played, I talked to my brother-in-law," Donna said. "He had worked with Andrea. I told him she was starting, and he said, 'What? They must not have any players. What did she do over the summer that got her to this?' "

One of Garner's cousins had promised to drive to Penn State and see her play when she made the starting lineup, figuring he had a two- or three-year wait. He had to juggle his work schedule on short notice, and he still didn't make it to the Jordan Center until a few games into the season.

When he arrived, he saw a work in progress.

"The hardest part was getting the respect of the people I beat out," Garner said. "They'd been here longer, and I was getting to start. There was a lot of ... I don't know the word ... maybe jealousy. It's tough to get the respect of the team when you're thrown in like that."

Especially when the team is struggling. The Lions ended up starting two freshmen that season, Garner and point guard Helen Darling, and lost more games than they had in nearly a decade. Things went from bad to worse when players began to quit the team, accusing Portland of mental abuse. Away from home for the first time, Garner was alarmed.

Her mother was concerned, too.

"I knew one thing," Donna said. "She's a very strong young lady. She would not allow you to mistreat her. Now, there are rules and you have to follow those rules, and I felt very strongly that Rene wasn't going to do anything crazy.

"But we were new, and we didn't know what was going on. I've often said, you have to find out things for yourself. What one person is able to take, the next one might not be able to."

The Lions, who failed to earn an NCAA tournament berth for only the second time in Portland's career, ended that dismal 15-12 season with a loss to Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Portland said afterward that one of the reasons they lost was because Garner -- who averaged 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds -- got hurt. The project had developed quicker than anyone had expected.

But Garner wasn't happy. She didn't like the morning practices, or being yelled at or the fact that so many of the players were transferring. She considered following them away from Penn State, but thought better of it.

"I felt like I owed them something," Garner said. "They brought me here. They took a chance on me."

Key to Lions' success

And so Garner became a key reason that the Lions have returned to their place among the elite of women's basketball. As a sophomore, Garner led Penn State into the final of the Big Ten tournament, earning MVP honors. And when the Lions went on to win the Women's National Invitation Tournament, she was named to the all-tournament team.

On the season, she averaged 13.9 points and 18.6 rebounds, and she earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

And last season, as the Lions returned to the NCAA tournament after that two-year absence, Garner became a dominant force in the Big Ten, earning first-team all-conference honors and averaging 14.4 points and 8.5 rebounds.

This year, she is averaging 14.7 points (10th best in the conference) and 8.8 rebounds (second).

And she has done it all without sacrificing her academics, much to her mother's relief. Garner, whose grade-point average is 3.2, has earned several academic honors. And she turned 21 only last month; she is younger than all of the team's juniors.

"She's incredibly bright," Portland said. "Mom sent her to school early because she was bored being home. And she's going to graduate from Penn State in four years -- what does that tell you? As well as being a basketball player and playing USA Basketball in the summer. Two summers, she was gone all summers."

How does Garner do it all? Just ask her mother.

"I do know this," Donna Garner said. "When Andrea puts her mind to something, she gives it her all. Her commitment to whatever it is is unbelievable. That's what she gave to basketball."

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