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'Eaters' senior on point

College basketball had been tough enough for Kassandra McCalister. Injuries, personal tragedy and a change of schools all contributed to four years and three collegiate seasons that were considerably less satisfying than her charmed high school career.

Then, before her senior campaign with the UC Irvine women's team, things seemed to get progressively worse.

Offseason turmoil saw two top players pared from the roster that already had a cavernous void left by the graduation of All-Big West Conference point guard Jade Smith-Williams.

Still, McCalister, a 5-foot-9 guard, chose to focus on the possibilities. But her imagination was not vivid enough then to envision the challenge and fulfillment that would lay ahead.

A shooting guard who found comfort on the wing, the Oregon State transfer, one of only two seniors on a squad picked to finish sixth in the nine-team Big West, soon found herself taking a crash course in running the point from Coach Molly Goodenbour.

Goodenbour, the point guard on two NCAA championship teams at Stanford in the early 1990s, eventually realized that McCalister's refined sense of the game, offensive skills, and a toughness forged by competitive zeal and having overcome adversity, made her the most logical option in whom to entrust the ball, as well as the Anteaters' fate.

Though there was an adjustment period that lasted for more than half of the schedule, McCalister has emerged as both a productive and trusted leader. That leadership helped the 'Eaters (13-16, 9-7 in conference) tie for third in the regular-season standings and claim the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament that begins Tuesday at home at 7 p.m. against No. 6-seeded UC Santa Barbara.

McCalister, who helped Archbishop Mitty High win four CIF Central Coast Section championships and a CIF state Division II crown as a senior in 2006-07, has led UCI in scoring (13.7 points per game) and assists (four per contest), while also adding 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per outing. She was named first-team All-Big West on Monday.

"I think Kassandra has had a fantastic senior year," said Goodenbour, whose blend of encouragement and constructive criticism has accelerated McCalister's impressive transition. "Fortunately for us, she was able to adapt and play the point guard position when she had to do that for us. She has given everything she's had this year."

Much of the game McCalister brings to the court, including her passion for competition, she said she learned from her father, Danny, a former starting cornerback for the University of Oregon football team.

The elder McCalister coached his daughter from second grade into high school and was a junior varsity coach at Mitty when the younger McCalister was a senior. Danny McCalister was killed in an automobile accident just five months after Kassandra graduated and accepted a scholarship to attend Oregon State.

The devastating news continued in Corvallis, where Kassandra sustained stress fractures that required two pins to be surgically inserted in each foot.

After two seasons in which she played little, and a redshirt year with the Beavers, she was granted a release waiver to transfer to UCI, where she sat out only a handful of games to start the 2010-11 season.

McCalister said she learned about UCI from former OSU teammate Tayler Champion, who had already transferred to Goodenbour's program.

"It was one of the best academic schools in the nation and you could tell they were definitely trying to build a [basketball] program," McCalister said. "Each year, under Molly, they have gotten better and better."

But a four-game losing streak to open the season and a five-game slide that included the first two games of the conference schedule, left UCI at 4-10. Further, junior forward Jazmyne White suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December, adding even more uncertainty.

But UCI won its first five games of 2012 and won nine of its final 15 regular-season games. Included in that was its first season sweep of UCSB since the 1987-88 season.

McCalister, who scored 29 points (twice), 27 and 26 previously this season, poured in a career-high 36 in the second game against UCSB, a 72-65 home win on senior night on Feb. 18.

"The two really key qualities she has are: She's very competitive; and she's also very confident," Goodenbour said. "You need to have both as a point guard. You need to be able to be undaunted and, if you make a mistake, be able to bounce back. Another great thing about her is, she has been very coachable. She has made herself into a scoring threat and she has made herself into someone who makes her teammates better. She has been able to succeed in pretty much any situation and that has helped her teammates be confident. They feed off her."

McCalister, who has played through thumb and foot injuries this season to start 25 of 28 games after coming off the bench in 26 of 27 appearances as a junior, said she has savored the challenge of running the offense. Goodenbour said the thumb will require surgery when the season is completed.

"When you have the ball in your hands 90% of the time, everything goes through you," she said. "Even simple things like making the first cut can determine how the possession is going to go; everything is basically on you ... I like passing more than shooting, but I'm not going to pass up a shot, because, in the end, that would be hurting my team."

McCalister said she would like to play professionally overseas. But if not, her experience this year will benefit her throughout life.

"I think about what things would be like if I wasn't the point guard," she said. "I think I would feel like a completely different person."

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

TWITTER: @ BarryFaulkner5

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