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Ice in her veins: From Vista Ridge to UCLA, Japreece Dean comes up clutch

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With a Vista Ridge teammate on each of the wings, Japreece Dean got the ball at the top of the key and sank a game-winning shot to help the Lady Rangers beat Georgetown during the regular season on the way to the state semifinals her senior year.

As a freshman at Texas Tech, she hit three buzzer-beating shots, including a banked-in 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter against TCU.

Flash forward to this year as a starter at UCLA. Dean nailed the game-winning shot off the dribble with 7.9 seconds left to give the Lady Bruins a 61-59 road win over then-No. 16 Arizona State that sparked a phenomenal run at the end of the regular season.

"Typical JP," said Pecos McDaniel, who coached Dean for three years at Vista Ridge.

Nervous is not a word in Dean's vocabulary. She's used to playing against the best in the nation and she's made a habit of answering the call.

"I'm always ready for the moment and ready to play," Dean said. "I know that I have good people by my side so I'm always ready to get in the game and play."

After a wildly successful career at Vista Ridge, Dean went to Texas Tech. She spent just over one season with the Lady Raiders but transferred to UCLA a couple of games into her sophomore season. Early this season, the NCAA granted the guard an extra year of eligibility.

Dean remembers the people as the biggest highlight from her time at Vista Ridge. She played with two other future-Big 12 payers in Mikayla Christian (TCU) and Katrina Pardee (West Virginia).

Her stats weren't bad either: A two-time district MVP, a trip to the state semifinals in 2015, a McDonald's All-America nomination while averaging 17 points and 7.1 assists in her high school career. The Lady Rangers only lost 17 games in the four seasons she was there.

When Vista Ridge made it to the state semifinals in 2015, Dean had a fever over 100. She was quarantined in a hotel room with her mom but insisted on playing the game a few days later. She was held scoreless in the first three quarters but started to find her groove in the fourth before the Lady Rangers lost at the buzzer.

"She played just because it was that important to her," McDaniel said. "She was the most dedicated athlete I've ever been around. She was very driven and was all about basketball and just lived it. I probably learned more from here than she did from me."

McDaniel said she was good every year, but the progression from freshman to senior was vast.

When he first got there, she was a true point guard that could pass well and score when needed. By the time she graduated, she had developed a deadly 3-point game and could defend at a high level as well as dive and finish confidently.

"She was complete," McDaniel said. "Japreece was just a smart player. She played so much and watched so much basketball that she understood it. That to me is when you get to a different level."

Dean said she would come back to Cedar Park every once in a while to watch Nikki Cardano-Hillary, now a standout freshman at George Mason, play.

She was always willing to give back to the school that she grew up playing for.

"There was never a time when we were doing a drill that didn't matter," McDaniel said. "She never acted like she was nervous. It was a perfect point guard demeanor because she was locked in all the time. She changed the culture at Vista Ridge."

Dean said she was sold on the campus at Texas Tech, and knew she could make an immediate impact as soon as she got there. But not even she realized just how much of an impact she'd really have.

She was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Week six times, was the highest-scoring freshman in the Big 12, averaging 12.5 points per game, and was named to the conference All-Freshman team.

After two starts her junior year with the Lady Raiders, she transferred to UCLA.

"I knew they had a great education here and the coaching staff is amazing," Dean said. "I wanted to be somewhere where the coaches value us as people and they do that here. Plus, it's a great program basketball-wise and I wanted to be a part of that."

Her two years in California have been in wildly different roles.

She missed the first nine games last year due to NCAA transfer rules and came off the bench in all but one of the final 26 games. This year, she's started 31 of 32 games and leads UCLA in 3-pointers, assists and minutes played.

"Japreece's love of the game, charismatic personality sets the tone for our team," UCLA women's basketball head coach Cori Close said. "She has a tremendous amount of responsibility from both a leadership and a tactical perspective."

Dean knows she's been held to a higher standard this year and credits Close with helping her grow into her current role and helping her learn how to lead a team and work with different people.

This year, the Lady Bruins had the most start to a season since 2014.

But in the last 14 games, Dean has averaged 16.4 points per game with a 44.3 percent 3-point field goal percentage and 2.07 assist-to-turnover ratio and UCLA finished the regular season winning 10 of its final 12 games.

"It was hard at first," Dean said. "But watching us mature and grow into the team that we are now has been the best thing."

As the play started to vastly improve on the court, the news off the court was just a good. Dean was granted one more year of eligibility earlier this month. As soon as she heard the news after practice, she took off down the court and was tackled by teammates.

"Mostly I couldn't believe it," she said. "The first thing I want to do was call the people that have helped me and supported me. I was feeling a lot of disbelief that it actually happened because we put a lot of time into it."

The Lady Bruins are in the NCAA Tournament again this year, facing Tennessee in the first round Saturday in College Park, Md. The winner will face either Maryland or Radford in the second round.

This isn't the end of the story for Dean, UCLA is sure to have a talented team next year and push for banners and silverware, and once her college career is over, the ultra-competitive WNBA looms.

But if there's one thing's for sure about Dean, her competitiveness and intensity will not waver.

And she'll probably keep hitting buzzer beaters.

"This was right, and I am so excited for Japreece," Close said. "I am confident she will grow tremendously this offseason both in her skill set as well as her mental game. Watch out Pac-12: You will see a whole new level of Japreece Dean."

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