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Palmisano’s Winning Habit Resurfaces at Cal : College basketball: Former Buena star provides solid foundation for Pac-10 school’s rebuilding plans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is big-time college basketball--television coverage, slick media guides, expensive shoes, flashy uniforms, and full-ride scholarships--but California forward Teresa Palmisano is still not above her old high school routine.

Long after the crowd has shuffled out of Cal’s Harmon Gym after a game, Palmisano remains, honing her hook shot, her drop step and her turnaround jump shot.

She is not alone. Her father Joe works with her. He and his wife Mary Jean have made the drive from Ventura for home games the past four seasons.

It is a family competitive streak instilled in Teresa that drives her back onto the court.

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“It doesn’t happen all the time,” Palmisano said. “Only when I’m real irritated. It is weird. I just can’t swallow it when we lose games.”

Cal’s women’s team has won more than it has lost the past two seasons, but in Palmisano’s first two seasons the Golden Bears struggled through a rebuilding process.

For the opportunity to play immediately--and in front of her parents--Palmisano took a chance on a program only beginning to adjust to the rigors of the Pacific 10 Conference. In turn, she has benefited from her role as a pioneer of sorts.

Since Palmisano and Laura Baker, a talented senior guard, arrived on the scene, the Golden Bears have defeated UCLA and USC for the first time, tied for a best-ever fourth-place finish in the Pac-10 twice, and last season advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Cal was eliminated in the first round by Cal State Long Beach, 87-84.

Entering Thursday night’s game at Oregon State, injury-riddled Cal was 7-9 in conference games, 14-12 overall and still had an outside chance to tie for fourth again and perhaps gain a berth in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

The extra games in the NIT will further solidify Palmisano’s place in the Cal and Pac-10 record books.

Palmisano is the Golden Bears’ all-time leader in free throws attempted (623) and made (474), second in career rebounding (856), fourth in career scoring (1,582, 60 points shy of third), and fifth in field goals attempted (1,215) and made (554).

In terms of the Pac-10, Palmisano needs 15 free throws to become the conference’s all-time leading free-throw shooter, 11 rebounds to move into third in rebounding and only four points to move into fourth on the career scoring list.

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Palmisano is averaging 17.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game this season, a significant increase over each of her first three seasons when she averaged 13.5 points and seven rebounds.

“She is real, real consistent,” Cal Coach Gooch Foster said. “And that is with people double- and triple-teaming her. We list her at 6-foot-2, but she is really 6-0, so she is doing that against players who are taller and bigger.”

Palmisano counters with a not-so-secret weapon: a left-handed hook shot. “I like it when people say I’m known for it,” Palmisano said of the hook shot her father began developing when she was in the sixth grade. “It is a difficult shot that a lot of coaches aren’t teaching anymore. People don’t expect it.”

Those who try to stop it are forced to reach across Palmisano’s body, which often results in a foul shot. And, usually, Palmisano converts. In her career, she has hit 76% of her foul shots, including 79% this season.

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Palmisano hopes the hook shot, along with a spin move to her left and a feathery jump shot, will be her meal tickets after she graduates from Cal with a degree in communications next winter.

“In the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to be a professional in my sport because my dad was and his dad was,” said Palmisano of her father, a former minor league baseball player, and her grandfather Joe, a member of the 1931 American League champion Philadelphia Athletics. “I’d feel a little differently for these last two games if I thought my career was over.”

Palmisano’s goal is to play in the Italian league, the top professional circuit in women’s basketball.

“My ancestors are from there, I want to see the culture, and I’m not going to lie, that is where the most money is made,” Palmisano said.

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Since the Italian league allows only two Americans per team, Palmisano has her work cut out.

She has a few European contacts already. Last summer she toured Scandinavia with a California collegiate all-star team and in the summer of 1989, she toured Hungary with some Pac-10 all-stars. Working against her is that she cannot go to Europe immediately because she plans to return to Cal next fall to complete her degree.

A place on the Pan American Games team or World University Games team this summer would keep Palmisano’s game sharp, however, and sustain her hopes for a berth on the 1992 U. S. Olympic team.

Last summer she tried out for the Goodwill Games team but was among a group of 100 players who did not survive the first cut to 10. The surviving 10 were combined with 40 invited players to form a group from which the 12 team members were selected.

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“I want to get into that group of 40,” Palmisano said. “My stats have improved, but a lot depends on how far your team goes. If we go to the NIT, that will help.”

Said Foster: “So many things are involved in the selections. I don’t think Teresa ever got the respect, and maybe, the recognition she deserves.

“You have to have a reputation when you go into those trials. She’s got to go in and show good that particular minute. It is a matter of minutes. It is a hard nut to crack and the odds are not with her.”

Palmisano believes her lack of a reputation dates to her days at Buena High. Although she was a high school All-American, she contends that her lack of playing time kept her statistics down (she averaged 19 points a game her senior year) and prevented the nation’s best collegiate programs from noticing her.

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Buena Coach Joe Vaughan denies Palmisano’s claims that she played as few as two quarters in some games. He said he has videotapes of those games and score books as evidence.

“What probably created some of these vibes is that her sister (Michelle) is averaging 25 points at Thousand Oaks,” Vaughan said. “I’m not going to give the ball to someone all the time. Our record stands for itself. We have been to the (Southern Section final) seven times and won state (titles) two times.”

Because of Teresa’s experience at Buena, Michelle attends Thousand Oaks High and lives with her older sister Dina, a Thousand Oaks High assistant coach who lives in the Thousand Oaks attendance area.

Michelle’s decision to change schools is nothing new to the Palmisano clan, which includes eight children. Leon, 23, transferred from Buena to Santa Clara and now plays at Santa Barbara City College, and Joey, 29, switched from St. Bonaventure to Buena.

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Dina, 28, and Marguerite, 26, played at Sonoma State and Cal State Sacramento, respectively, after starting their careers at St. Bonaventure.

Teresa did not follow them to St. Bonaventure because she thought the small size of the school would hinder her chances for a college scholarship. Her aspirations were nurtured in the eighth grade when she spent a year in New Mexico with her uncle Leon, a high school coach.

“That’s when I realized what I wanted, to get a scholarship in basketball,” Palmisano said. “I wanted to be the best I could be. He was telling me I was one of the best players he has ever seen so I had that attitude, and my dad reinforced it, so I had a lot of people supporting me.”

Teresa Palmisano says she was promised a berth on the varsity as a high school freshman, a claim Vaughan denies. She played on the junior-varsity team and was called up at the end of the season when Buena won the state championship.

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“I was put on the jayvee for no reason,” Palmisano said. “I was averaging 20 points and playing less than two quarters.

“Before I played for (Vaughan), he used to get mediocre players and mold them and discipline them in a team concept,” Teresa Palmisano said. “Then I came in with all this talent and knowing all this stuff and I think he had a conflict with that.”

Palmisano’s time at Cal has not been nearly as controversial but just as productive. “I get along with the coach, which is refreshing,” she said.

But the lessons of high school remain with her. “In a way I had to prove myself because of all that,” Palmisano said. “I don’t think there was a day I didn’t want to go out and improve and get respect, in a way, for the university.”

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