Oct. 16, 2003
Coach Kathy Olivier saw her team improve by nine games in the win column last season, and she is anxious to get started again in the 2003-04 season. The Bruins welcome back 10 returning letterwinners and add four talented newcomers from a recruiting group ranked in several publications' top-10 class lists.
Olivier's Bruins will look to move up from last year's fourth place Pac-10 finish. Three returning starters are back, headlined by first-team all-conference guard Nikki Blue, who averaged 16.6 points.
In 2003, the Bruins totaled 18 wins on the season and challenged for the Pac-10 lead during much of the campaign. The 18 victories were two more than the combined win total of the previous two seasons. The total of 12 conference wins was a number which has been bettered by only two other Bruin teams in school history. In addition, the Bruins were one of just two teams in the league to post a winning record on the road in conference games.
Improvement was evident across the board, as the team upped its scoring average from 59.0 points in 2002 to 73.0 last season. Field goal shooting improved from 34% to 42%, and free throw shooting jumped from 64% to a school record mark of 71.6% in 2003. The future seems bright indeed after freshmen accounted for 41% of the team's scoring a year ago.
Five of the top six scorers and the top three rebounders from a year ago all return. Sophomore Nikki Blue, the leading returning scorer at 16.6 points per game, possesses one of the top all-around games in the conference and finished second in the league in steals, fifth in scoring, sixth in assists, eighth in assist/turnover ratio and 18th in rebounding.
"Nikki proved what kind of player she is last season," says Olivier. "The sky is the limit for her."
Two other starters return, senior forwards Whitney Jones and Jamila Veasley. Jones averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds and has 60 career starts. Veasley scored 3.5 points and grabbed 4.9 rebounds per contest while starting all 29 games last season and 47 for her career.
Olivier is expecting big things from the sophomore class. As a group last season, they averaged approximately 40 points and 17 rebounds per game. "I am counting on the sophomores to provide scoring, defense and leadership this coming season," says Olivier.
Blue may have led the way, but by no means was she alone. Forward Julia Pitts started the first eight games of the season and averaged 10.0 points and 5.9 rebounds. The 6-2 Pitts injured her knee in that eighth game and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery shortly thereafter. Her rehab process is on schedule for her to take part in the fall practices.
Guard/forward Lisa Willis proved to be a dynamic catalyst in many games last season. She connected on 46 three-point shots and her .343 shooting percentage from three-point range was the fifth-best ever by a freshman at UCLA. She also totaled 55 steals, making things happen at both ends of the court when she entered a game.
Sophomore post player Emma Tautolo saw action in 26 games last season. She will be looked on to provide a more physical presence on the inside this season. Sophomore guard Ortal Oren also is back. Oren, a very capable perimeter shooter, is poised to assume a larger role on the team after spending most of last season adjusting to the college game.
In addition, 6-1 redshirt sophomore Brittany Ringel returns to the team. A starter on the women's volleyball team at outside hitter, Ringel played basketball in her true freshman season of 2001 and saw limited action.
Freshman Noelle Quinn headlines the incoming class which was listed as No. 7 in Blue Star Report and No. 6 in All-Star Girls Report. Quinn, a 6-0 guard/forward, averaged 22.9 points and was named a Parade Magazine All-American. She helped her team win league and CIF championships in all four of her prep seasons.
Freshman forward Amanda Livingston averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 rebounds as a prep senior at Troy High School in Fullerton, CA. She led her team to the state championship in the school's first-ever trip to the title game last season.
Consuelo Lezcano, a 6-4 center, averaged 15.5 rebounds and nine blocks for Marathon High School in Marathon, FL. She scored 2,143 points in her prep career and was considered one of the top five recruits in the state of Florida by one publication.
Shaina Zaidi, a 5-8 guard, averaged 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists for Marlborough High School in Los Angeles. She was selected to the first-team All-CIF Div. IV-AA squad.
"I can't wait for the start of practice," says Olivier, who is set to begin her 11th season as head coach at UCLA and 18th season overall on the Bruin bench. "We came on to finish strong last season and just missed out on an NCAA tournament bid. This year we will have as much athletic talent as we have ever had in my time at UCLA."
"We will miss the scoring of Michelle Greco and the leadership of Natalie Nakase, but we do add four outstanding recruits. Two of the four newcomers are inside players, and we also expect Julia Pitts to be back from injury and help out on the inside as well."
"Once again we are playing a high-quality pre-season schedule which includes a number of games with teams which went on to the post-season, including Texas and Purdue. There is no better way to help prepare for the challenge of competing in the Pac-10."
Whitney Jones (5-10, senior) is a multi-sport athlete who will join the Bruins following the conclusion of the soccer season. She is a starting midfielder on the nationally-ranked soccer team. A former first-team all-CIF performer in basketball at San Clemente High, Jones has been a three-year starter on the hardwood. She averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and is a steady, productive all-around performer. Jones matched her career-highs with a 24-point, 10-rebound effort in a win at Oregon. She ended the season by making 22 of her last 25 free throws and is one of UCLA's all-time best (10th) from the line with a career mark of .736. Also a defensive asset, Jones registered 46 steals.
"Whitney is a shooter with good range and an athlete with a motor that just doesn't stop," said Olivier. "It usually takes a game or two for her to make the adjustment to basketball, but then her game takes off and she makes things happen. She does a lot of things to help a team win that most people fail to notice."
Jamila Veasley (6-1, senior), the sister of former Bruin Aisha Veasley (1995-98), started in all 29 games last season and showed steady improvement during the year. She finished the season ranked seventh in the Pac-10 conference in blocked shots (0.69) after finishing the year with 20 total blocks. She had entered her junior season with just seven blocks for her career. Veasley posted a career-high 12 points in a win at Oregon and a new best of 12 rebounds in a game against St. Mary's.
"Jamila is a hard-working, scrappy player who takes advantage of opportunities and gives you everything she has," said Olivier. "She has shown measurable improvement each year and we expect her to do an even better job of defending the inside and rebounding this season. Jamila is also a team leader, both on and off the court, who knows the system well."
Sissy Pickett (6-7, junior) is the tallest player in UCLA women's basketball history. She ranks among the all-time high school scoring leaders with a total of over 4,000 career points. She has worked hard to make the adjustments to the next level and proved to be a solid performer in certain situations.
"Sissy has worked hard to put herself in position to have a role on this team," said Olivier. "She has become someone we can rely on for an outstanding effort in the course of a game to help us in some matchups. She will only continue to get better as her level of fitness and experience increases. Sissy stayed here this summer and has proved she will do whatever it takes to help our team be successful."
Julia Pitts (6-2, sophomore) was a three-sport standout (basketball, volleyball and track) at North Torrance, CA High School. She was selected during the summer following her senior season as the Cal-Hi Sports State Female Athlete of the Year. Pitts was an All-CIF selection in both basketball and volleyball and recorded top-five finishes at the CIF State track meet in the high jump, 300m hurdles and 400 meters. She was off to a great start in her freshman season of basketball when she suffered two torn knee ligaments in the first half of a contest against Baylor and was lost for the balance of 2002-03. At the time of her injury, she led the Pac-10 conference in shooting percentage with a .674 mark and had started the first eight games of the campaign. She was averaging 10.0 points and 5.9 rebounds.
"Julia was off to a great start last season when she went down with the injury," Olivier said. "We look forward to having her back this season. She runs the court so well that few players can keep up with her. Julia also brings a number of intangibles to a team because of her spirited play."
Emma Tautolo (6-2, sophomore) was an all-league performer in both basketball and volleyball at Moreno Valley, CA High School. She saw action in 26 games off the bench last season as a post player. She averaged 2.3 points and 1.2 rebounds in her initial season and will look to improve on those numbers in 2003-04.
"Emma had several solid games in which she showed excellent promise," Olivier said. "We will look for her to be more consistent this season and work to become more physical on the boards. She is an inside player who is comfortable playing with her back to the basket. She is capable of helping us a lot."
Noelle Quinn (6-0, freshman) headlines the incoming freshman class. Quinn, an outstanding athlete who can play both forward and guard, averaged 22.9 points and 10.1 rebounds as a senior last season at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, CA. A Parade Magazine All-American, she helped her team win four league titles, three CIF Division III championships, four California Regional Division III crowns and four CIF state championships. She was also selected a McDonald's All-American and played in their annual all-star game.
"Noelle can handle the ball, run the court, key the defense, battle inside and be a threat from the perimeter," Olivier said. "She can do it all and will boost our overall quickness all over the court. She can make everyone around her a better player as well. This summer she played with many of her teammates and should have a head start going into Fall practices."
Amanda Livingston (6-1, freshman) was a two-time MVP of the Freeway League who averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 rebounds as a prep senior at Fullerton's Troy High School. She helped her team to a pair of CIF Southern Section Division II-AA titles in three seasons.
"Amanda is a very competitive player who can be a big plus for us on the inside," Olivier said. "She makes things happen on the court and in the paint. She will outwork you on the inside and still have the ability to get up and down the court. She is a capable passer and plays bigger than her height in the post."
Consuelo Lezcano (6-4, freshman) was a two-sport (basketball and volleyball) star at Marathon, FL High School. She averaged 21.2 points, 15.5 rebounds and nine blocks as a prep senior last season. She scored more than 2,000 points in her prep career.
"Consuelo adds a size and speed complement to our interior game," Olivier said. "She can be a shot blocker on the inside, but also runs the court well. As with all prep post players, she will have adjustments to make as she gains experience playing the collegiate game. She could become a big plus for us."
The Bruin backcourt returns plenty of experience, despite the fact that it loses a combined 157 career starts from Michelle Greco and Natalie Nakase. Three returning players saw action in all 29 games.
Gennifer Arranaga (5-6, senior) appeared in all 29 games off the bench last season. She has the ability to spark the team at both ends of the court. Arranaga averaged 5.4 points and 2.3 rebounds and added 40 assists and 32 steals. She also shot .361 from three-point range and has become a perimeter threat.
"Gennifer is a great athlete and fearless competitor," said Olivier. "She has continued to work hard to become a better basketball player, as exhibited by her improved perimeter game. Gen plays low to the ground and is constantly moving on the court and getting to loose balls. She makes things happen."
Nikki Blue (5-8, sophomore) was regarded by several publications as the No. 1 combo guard in the country coming into last season and did not disappoint. Blue started all 29 games and averaged 16.6 points (fifth in the Pac-10) and led the team with a 5.5 rebounding mark. She also dished out 103 assists (sixth in the Pac-10) and recorded 78 steals (second in the Pac-10). The Bakersfield native was selected to the first-team All-Pac-10 squad, one of just seven freshmen ever to be named to the first-team. She had three 30-point games last season (most in the Pac-10) and set a freshman school record with 35 in a game at Washington.
"Nikki proved what kind of player she was last season," Olivier said. "She took over some games like very few players, especially freshman players, can. She will strive to be more consistent this season after a year of experience. I look for her to step into more of a leadership role for us with the loss of Natalie Nakase."
Lisa Willis (5-11, sophomore) appeared in 29 games off the bench last season as a wing player. She showed excellent shooting range and finished the season seventh in the Pac-10 in three-point shots made (46). Her total ranked second on UCLA's all-time single season freshman list and sixth all-time at the school. Willis recorded 11 double figure scoring games and made at least one three-pointer in 21 games.
"Lisa is a player I think could take a big step up this season," Olivier said. "She is a scoring threat anywhere on the court and can also be a plus at the defensive end. I look for her to take on a more dynamic team role this season. She was here most of the summer and worked hard to improve her overall game."
Ortal Oren (5-9, sophomore) appeared in 11 games off the bench last season. She averaged 2.5 points and displayed a soft shooting touch.
"Ortal gave us very solid production for a first-year player," said Olivier. "She is capable of giving us a lift with her shooting ability. The key is what she does with her year of experience. She is a winner and high-achiever both on the court and in the classroom. She played internationally most of the summer and has put a lot of work in to becoming a more complete player at both ends of the court."
Shaina Zaidi (5-8, freshman) averaged 22 points and six assists for Marlborough High School in Los Angeles. She helped her team to three straight Sunshine League titles and last year's Division IV-AA CIF Southern Section championship.
"Shaina gives us a solid ball handler on the perimeter," Olivier said. "With the loss of Greco and Nakase, we needed someone to help fill that void. She has been in our camps for a number of years and is familiar with our system. We look for her to be a good decision-maker with the ball and get it into the hands of the right people at the right time."
This year's schedule is once again a challenging one. Non-conference matchups pit the Bruins against a number of teams which earned bids to the 2003 NCAA tournament (Texas, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State). In addition, the Bruins face the usual home and home Pac-10 conference round robin schedule. Additional matchups with Cal State Northridge, UNLV, St. Mary's and Fresno State fill out the slate. The Pac-10 women's basketball tournament, in San Jose, will conclude the regular season.
"Once again, we are playing a high-quality pre-season schedule to help prepare for Pac-10 play," said Olivier. "Area fans will get a look at UNLV, Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Fresno. We will get true tests of where our young team stands when we play road games at Texas and Purdue. I think the overall depth of the Pac-10 will be even better this season. The conference tournament continues to be one of the most exciting events in the nation."