Shavonte Zellous' smile, energy, work ethic, enthusiasm and passion are as infectious as ever, but after Zellous helped the Indiana Fever win its first WNBA championship Sunday, it is clear her game is still as good as ever, too.
More importantly, her penchant for rising to the occasion is intact.
Zellous averaged 17 points per game in the four games of the WNBA Finals (nearly 10 points better than her average for the season) between her Fever and the Minnesota Lynx. That included a career-high 30-points in a pivotal Game 3, an Indiana rout.
She also played excellent defense despite primarily being matched up against two superstars, Lynx forward Maya Moore and guard Seimone Augustus.
Her rise to success and excellence is a result of old-fashioned hard work and her desire.
Zellous, who played at Pitt from 2005-09 but wasn't highly recruited coming out of high school, worked her way into a star at Pitt and led the Panthers to their only three NCAA appearances. That same work ethic has enabled her to savor this championship.
"I've always known I was capable of this but the best thing that happened along the way is I was never handed anything," Zellous said. "I had to work for everything, and that's made me better and pushed me to keep working. But being on a WNBA championship team, that's the top of the hill, that's as good as it gets and knowing that I played a part of it has been special.
"But this is also just the beginning. I see so many things I need to do better, so many areas in my game I need to work on, and that's what I will do in this offseason, work on getting better."
Although Zellous' work ethic is legendary and her competitive fire burns hot, she also knows that she would not have accomplished anything had it not been for the support of her family and coaches.
That's why while many Fever players celebrated with family and friends Sunday after clinching the championship with a Game 4 win, Zellous gathered her "entourage" together for a few hugs, some tears of joy and to take the time to say "thank you."
Of course, Zellous' entourage consisted of two people -- her mother, Tangela Allen, and her college coach, Pitt's Agnus Berenato. It would have ballooned to five had the three former Pitt assistants she invited to the deciding game shown up, but they had previous commitments.
"That -- having my mom and Coach B [Berenato] there along with my teammates made it so special because those are the people who have been by me through all of the ups and downs," Zellous said.
"My mom has been by me and supported me my whole life, and Coach B gave me a chance when nobody else would. She took a chance on me, and I always am thankful for that and for my time at Pitt, that's why I wanted her to come to that game as well as coach [Jeff] Williams and coach [Caroline] McCombs and coach Yo -- they all believed in me when not a lot of people did."
Berenato, who lost her voice, in part because she was cheering so loud at the game, said it was an honor for her to share the experience with Zellous, whose success, she said, should not come as a surprise.
"It was awesome, to see Shavonte out there just being her -- she still has that million-dollar smile, the energy -- she loves the game, she plays it with such energy and such joy," Berenato said. "And I've had the privilege of watching her grow up both on and off the court, and that's really what makes me smile as she is a tremendous woman.
"I remember when she first came to Pitt she needed so much work we just redshirted her, but over the next two years she transformed herself into one of the best players in the Big East and, frankly, what has always set her apart in my mind is she has guts, just courage and that fire and will to win."
Although the WNBA season has ended, Zellous, like most players in the league, will play overseas this winter to supplement her income. She will play for Mersan in Turkey and said her experience in that league the past two seasons has helped her fulfill another dream -- to see the world.
"But, no matter where I go, I'll always be a Pitt Panther because that's where it all started. It was special to be a part of that group that helped put the program into the NCAA tournament the first time. That's something I'll never forget, but we didn't win it all.
" That's why this [winning the WNBA title] is even that much more special, we get to call ourselves champions."