TAMPA — She's the leading scorer and rebounder for the University of Tampa's women's basketball team, so junior Staja Tyghter has clearly made an impact during her first season on UT's campus.
It didn't happen by accident.
"You've heard of terms like 'basketball junkie' and 'gym rat,' but they don't do justice to Staja," Spartans coach Tom Jessee said. "There are two kinds of people in this game. You're either a basketball player or somebody who plays basketball. Staja is a basketball player."
She loves it.
And she lives it.
She thrives on the competition during games. Even the most mundane practice will represent an opportunity to improve. She will tune into any game — from the NBA (especially her beloved Boston Celtics) to an obscure college contest.
In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games. The basketball version, of course.
"I'm into playing basketball, watching it, hearing about it … I guess you could say I'm obsessed with the game," said Tyghter, who averages 13.0 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Spartans. "But I don't think that's unusual. You always want to do something you truly love, right?"
If basketball is the soundtrack to Tyghter's life, it's certainly music to Jessee's ears.
"You get a kid like Staja — or a few kids like her — and you've really got something on your team," Jessee said. "Some kids play for social reasons. Some of them are driven by scholarship dollars. Some get here and sour on it when they see the work that is involved.
"You're going to run into kids who get burned out and lose their love for it. So it's truly refreshing to have someone like Staja. I think she'd pay to play basketball. Believe me, you don't have to beg her to work on her game."
Tyghter (pronounced: Tighter), a 5-foot-8 guard/forward from Orlando Colonial High, played her first two seasons at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
It was a Division I-A destination, the type of place she sought after a brilliant four-year career at Colonial, where she finished with 1,809 points, 1,029 rebounds, 442 steals, 301 assists and 122 blocked shots.
In Tyghter's senior season, Colonial finished 25-5 and ranked No. 2 in Class 8A. Tyghter was runnerup for Florida's Miss Basketball to Beatrice Mompremier, a 6-foot-4 center from Miami who signed with Big 12 Conference powerhouse Baylor.
Then Tyghter was off to Georgia State. And everything was great.
Until it wasn't.
"I believed it was where I wanted to go, but as it turns out, it's important to be happy," said Tyghter, who was a two-season starter at Georgia State. "I was completely focused on Division I, but that's not really the big hype you think it is. You have to find the best place for you. And for me, it was a place closer to home."
Tyghter knew about UT, where she once attended summer camps. She contacted Spartans guard Karma Jeremie, her former teammate at Colonial, who passed along the interest to Jessee.
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"Before we got going with Staja, though, we brought in Karma for a talk," Jessee said. "I said, 'Listen, you've played together with her and been buddies, but this is your program.' We knew on paper that Staja would probably springboard into a (leading scorer) role.
"Karma didn't hesitate. She just said, 'Staja fits the way we play and she can help us win. I want to win.' So that was that. And it has worked out perfectly."
Has Tyghter enjoyed her return to Florida?
Her one-word answer lingered.
On the court, Jessee said Tyghter has brought an unquestioned work ethic, along with practice-court precision and an impressive offensive game.
"You can ride her in big spurts," Jessee said. "She can score over the top of people. You see a lot of set shots in this (women's) game, but it's rare to have someone who can elevate over the defender for their jump shot.
"She can be guarded pretty well by someone, but she still manages to score. That's huge. And she listens. You can coach her. She doesn't pout or go into a hole. She wants to get as good as she can at this game."
Once her UT days have finished, Tyghter hopes to find a professional basketball opportunity overseas. After that, she'd like to craft a career in basketball.
"Maybe training players," Tyghter said. "I don't visualize myself sitting behind a desk. The way I see it, I'm always going to be in the gym."
What else would you expect? For Tyghter, basketball has never been just a game. It's her life — and her love.