Oct. 11, 2002
Coach Kathy Olivier welcomes back 10 letterwinners and adds five talented newcomers to the team for 2002-2003. Four returning starters are back, as well as 2001 Pac-10 scoring champ Michelle Greco, who is cleared to play after a medical redshirt season a year ago.
In 2002, Olivier guided a Bruin team which lost its top two returning scorers during the season to nine wins and a first-round Pac-10 tournament victory. Included in the season win column were victories over NCAA tournament teams from BYU and Liberty.
Now, coach Olivier returns four of the top five scorers from a season ago. In addition, Greco, who was averaging 23.6 points per game before going to the sidelines after five games, is also set to return. Not just an offensive standout, she also finished fourth in the conference in steals in 2001.
Greco's season came to a premature end on December 12, 2001, when it was announced that the Bruin`s leading scorer would not participate for the remainder of the season for medical reasons. Due to a history of mild concussions during the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons, the UCLA Medical Staff recommended that Greco should sit out from competition for the remainder of the season. Her petition for a medical hardship was granted by the Pac-10 in June of 2002, and she was cleared to return to full participation in late September.
"Michelle became one of the best guards on the West Coast during the 2000-01 season," said Olivier. "She had some of her best games against the ranked teams we played. At the start of last season, she was performing at the highest level we have seen her at during her Bruin career. I know she can't wait to put on the uniform again, and the team can't wait for her to return to the lineup. When healthy, she is capable of being one of the best players in the nation."
Four other seniors return, headed by point guard Natalie Nakase, who averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 assists per game in 29 starts. Guard Jalina Bradley averaged 6.3 points and started 27 games last season. Forward Natalie Jarrett has come close to putting it all together and could be a plus this season. Guard Melissa Maurin has seen spot duty off the bench for the last two seasons.
They will be joined by junior forward Whitney Jones, who started in the final 22 games of the year after joining the team in early December following the soccer season. She nailed 35 three-point shots for the year, averaged a team-best 9.5 points per game and is also the leading returning rebounder on the team with a 5.2 per game mark. Forward Jamila Veasley also returns after starting in 18 games last season. The 6-1 junior averaged 3.1 boards per contest. Fellow junior Gennifer Arranaga gave notice of what she can bring to the team at the end of last season. She came off the bench to total 68 points (17.0 avg.) and 24 rebounds (6.0) in the last four games of the year, while adding seven assists and 10 steals.
Rising sophomores Brianna Winn, who appeared in 25 games, Sissy Pickett and Krystle Johnson are back. Pickett, a 6-7 center, averaged 2.9 points in 16 games. Johnson, a 6-4 power player, averaged 2.4 points in 25 games.
"I can't wait for practice to start," says Olivier, who is set to begin her 10th season as head coach at UCLA and 17th season overall on the Bruin bench. "For the first time in a few years, we will have depth at all positions and lots of options with the talent to score. We will also be able to play more of an up-tempo style, which I like. Last year, we were forced to play most of the season without a real go-to player. Now, we will have several players with a scorer's mentality, combined with defensive quickness."
"There will be plenty of competition for playing time with 16 players on the roster. The perimeter players will be forced to battle each day in practice for an edge. We now have a number of players who are capable of handling the ball and being an offensive threat. I have been impressed by what I have seen of the incoming class, and they will definitely go a long way to helping make us a more complete team."
Whitney Jones (5-10, junior) is a multi-sport athlete who will join the Bruins in December. 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 started the final 22 games last season. She averaged 9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds to be the leading returning player in both categories. She made 35 three-point shots (10th on the all-time school single-season list) and totaled a career-best 24 points at Arizona. Also a defensive asset, Jones ranked ninth in the conference in steals (1.79 average). She was 10th in the league in made three-point shots (1.46/g).
"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. She was only getting better as the season progressed. She hit some very big shots for us during the course of the season."
Senior Natalie Jarrett (6-0) has started 11 contests in her career and saw action in 15 games a year ago. She has a solid all-around game which only needs a higher level of consistency to see her role expand. The Washington native, who has one of the prettiest shots on the team, has shown flashes of brilliance and will compete for playing time this year at a forward position. She averaged 2.2 points and 1.5 boards for the Bruins in 2001.
"Jarrett is a hard-worker with a huge heart," said Olivier. "Last season, she just could not seem to get it going. However, she has worked hard in the off-season and is excited to start the new year. She is capable of doing a lot more than she has shown, and I expect her to mount a strong challenge for playing time."
Jamila Veasley (6-1, junior), the sister of former Bruin Aisha Veasley (1995-98), started in 18 games last season. She was especially effective at the defensive end of the court and on the boards. Veasley had a double-double with a career-high 10 rebounds and 10 points in the win over Ohio State last year. She tied for the team lead with eight rebounds versus both Washington State and Washington.
"Jamila is a hard-working, scrappy player who takes advantage of people's mistakes 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."
Krystle Johnson (6-4, sophomore) helped to lead her Hoover High team to the 6-A State championship as a prep senior, hitting the winning free throws in the final seconds of that contest. She became a solid contributor as the season progressed last year and averaged 3.3 points per game in 14 Pac-10 games. Johnson recorded a career-best 15 points in a win over Washington State.
Sissy Pickett (6-7, sophomore) is the tallest player in UCLA women's basketball history. She averaged 28.0 points per game in her senior season for Martin High in Coushatta, LA and was named to the Class B first-team All-State team. She ranks amongst the all-time high school leaders with a total of over 4,000 career points. Like most post players, she needed time to make the adjustment to the next level and went on to become a very consistent performer down the stretch. In 11 Pac-10 contests, she averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
"We brought both of our new posts along slowly as they made the adjustments to the collegiate level," said Olivier. "Both came on strong as the season went on and became reliable players for us in the stretch run. They each will only continue to get better as their level of fitness and experience increases."
Julia Pitts (6-2, freshman) was a three-sport standout at North Torrance High School. The Cal-Hi Sports State Female Athlete of the Year, Pitts was an All-CIF selection in both basketball (consecutive trips to the CIF division II finals) and volleyball (middle blocker for two-time Ocean League champs), as well as an outstanding performer in track and field (top five finishes at the CIF State meet in the high jump, 300m hurdles and 400 meters). As a senior, her hoops team advanced to the CIF championship game and to the State tournament. She averaged 21 points, 15 rebounds and three steals per game.
Emma Tautolo (6-2, freshman) was an all-league performer in both basketball and volleyball at Moreno Valley High School. She should see action for the Bruins at both the forward and center positions. As a senior, her team advanced to the second round of the CIF championship tournament. Tautolo averaged 21 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in her senior season and 14 points and 10 rebounds as a junior. Her father, John, was a defensive lineman for coach Terry Donahue on the UCLA football team from 1977-80.
"Both young frontcourt players are exciting to watch," Olivier said. "Julia is an athletic, 6-2 player who will use her wingspan and height to be a real factor at both ends of the court. Emma is an inside player who is already comfortable playing with her back to the basket. She is an aggressive rebounder. Both will have a chance to help us right away."
The Bruin backcourt returns six letterwinners to the fold, four with starting experience. Senior Michelle Greco was in the starting lineup to begin last season until sidelined for medical reasons. Senior Natalie Nakase has started the last 58 straight games. Senior Jalina Bradley started 27 games last season. Gennifer Arranaga was in the starting lineup a year ago for three contests. The four players each bring something a little different to the mix -- Greco adds defensive smarts and big-time scoring ability; Nakase adds court presence and intensity; Bradley offers quickness and explosiveness; Arranaga is a relentless competitor who makes things happen. Brianna Winn and Melissa Maurin are the other returning players. Winn has tremendous shooting range and can play either guard position. Maurin had success in a limited role.
Natalie Nakase (5-2, redshirt senior) came on to start in all 29 games last season at the point guard position. She has improved her numbers in each season in the program and averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 assists. Her total of 148 assists was the second-highest ever by a Bruin junior. She upped her free throw percentage from 50% to a team-best 78% last season. Her assist average ranked third in the Pac-10. She was ninth in the league in free throw percentage and 10th in steals (1.72).
"Nat is like having a coach on the floor," said Olivier. "She makes sure all the little things are taken care of both on and off the court. She is a fierce competitor who gets the ball to the right people at the right time. The fact that she has had the most steals on the team the past two years tells you all you need to know about her defense. I am anxious to see the improvements in her play after another year of experience."
Michelle Greco (5-9, redshirt senior) has been in the gym on a regular basis (non-contact drills) since being sidelined for medical reasons last December. She was on her way to her best season yet, averaging 23.6 points per game in the first five games of the year, before the Bruin medical staff recommended that she sit out the remainder of the season due to a history of mild concussions over the previous two seasons.
Greco led the team in steals average in both her junior and sophomore seasons, and her mark of 2.33 per game ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in 2001. She also led the conference in scoring (19.9) and free throw percentage shooting (.865) in 2001.
"Greco has grown as a player each year in the program," Olivier said. "She has taken on challenge after challenge and come out on top in her quest to become one of the nation's best college players. Her best games have been against the nation's best teams. And with all of the impressive offensive numbers, it is easy to overlook her considerable talents on the defensive end of the floor."
Jalina Bradley (5-7, senior) started 27 games last season and has 39 career starts under her belt. She averaged a career-best 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. She totaled a career-best 14 points in a contest at Stanford. Quickness is the name of her game. She is a player who can create scoring opportunities from her defense. Bradley led or tied for team-high scoring honors in four games last year.
"A.J. is a player who has the ability to make things happen at both ends of the floor," Olivier said. "She has worked hard to improve her game. She provides great defensive pressure and is a quick, fiery player who is not afraid of any challenge. "
Gennifer Arranaga (5-6, junior) appeared in all 29 games and started three times last season. She came into her own at the end of the year when she averaged 17 points and six rebounds in the last four games and added 10 steals and seven assists. She registered a career-best 21 points in the regular season finale against Stanford. For the year, Arranaga had seven double figure scoring games and averaged 6.4 points.
"Gennifer is a great athlete and competitor," said Olivier. "She has continued to work hard to become a better basketball player. Gen plays low to the ground and is constantly moving on the court and getting to loose balls. She makes things happen. After her successes of last season, she now knows what she is capable of doing on the court."
Melissa Maurin (5-6, senior) saw action in six games off the bench last season. The walk-on athlete averaged 0.3 points and 0.2 rebounds.
"Melissa is a special player," said Olivier. "What she brings to the team is not about points and rebounds - it's about energy, work ethic and, most of all, heart. She is so proud to be at UCLA, and her attitude is contagious. She is all about the team."
Brianna Winn (5-11, sophomore) appeared in 25 games off the bench last season. She showed excellent shooting range, making 17 three-point shots, and the ability to play either guard slot. Winn scored a career-high 13 points in the home win over Washington State and averaged 4.7 points and 1.2 rebounds.
"Brianna gave us very solid production for a first-year player," said Olivier. "She averaged over five points a game in conference play and gave 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 gives us good size in the backcourt."
Nikki Blue (5-8, freshman) was regarded by several publications as the No. 1 combo guard in the country. All-Star Girls Report listed her as the No. 6 player in the nation. As a senior, she averaged 28.9 points per game and her team finished as runners-up in the CIF Central Section. She finished her prep career as the No. 3 scorer in the State and the all-time leading scorer in the Central Section. Blue was a first-team Parade Magazine first-team All-America and was selected a McDonald's All-America and played in the first annual All-Star game in New York.
Lisa Willis (5-11, freshman) was a starter on Narbonne High School's State title teams in 2000 and 2001. As a senior in 2002, she averaged 7.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Her team won a second-straight City championship and was rated as the number two team in California. She was selected a second-team All-State player by Cal-Hi Sports after being a three-time All-City performer.
Ortal Oren (5-9, freshman) is a member of the Israeli Junior National team. She averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 2000-01 while leading her team to the Israeli championship. Last season, she scored at a 22 point per game clip.
"We feel we have three outstanding newcomers to add to the mix," said Olivier. "Nikki has been considered one of the top players in the nation, and I think our fans will be impressed. She and Ortal can both score and handle the ball. Lisa is a very good perimeter shooter who has a real feel for the game. Both Ortal and Lisa may see some time at a forward slot. These three players will make immediate contributions which impact the team. "
This year's schedule is once again a challenging one and could feature 18 games against teams which advanced to post-season play last season. The season-opener will pit the Bruins against Hawaii, a WNIT team last season. Non-conference games (Georgia, Pepperdine, Baylor) will be played against teams which earned bids to the 2001 NCAA tournament. In addition, the Bruins will face Pac-10 conference post-season teams from Oregon (WNIT champs), Oregon State, Arizona State (Pac-10 tournament champ), Washington, USC and Stanford (conference regular season champ). The Bruins will also face WNIT participant St. Mary's in Pauley. A local matchup with Cal State Northridge is the final tune-up for the conference games. A trip to a tournament at UNLV (NCAA tournament team) is also on tap. 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. There is no better way to help prepare for the Pac-10," said Olivier. "I see the conference being as competitive as ever. As we saw last year, the Pac-10 is strong from 1-10 and anything can happen on a given day. The conference tournament should be one of the most exciting events in the nation."