Molly Tideback, UCLA's 6-foot 3-inch freshman center from Waterloo, Iowa, is doing well this season.
She leads the Bruins in scoring with an average of 13.6 points a game, in blocked shots with 12, in free-throw percentage (82%) and in field-goal percentage (47.3%). In addition, she set a school record by hitting 14 free throws against Pepperdine, and her 23 straight foul shots over three games just missed tying Denise Curry's school record of 24.
That's very good for a freshman, but Tideback is not just any freshman.
Before the season, women's basketball Coach Billie Moore was quoted as saying that she is the "type of player that can take your program to another level."
Tideback's name is symbolic of the role she had been expected to play when she came to UCLA: help stem the tide of losses that has kept the Bruins out of postseason play since 1985.
That hasn't been happening. After defeating California and losing narrowly to Stanford last week, UCLA was 4-7 overall and 1-1 in Pacific 10 Conference play.
Moore said that won't do the job if the Bruins expect to go to the NCAA playoffs. She said it will probably take a record of 19-9, maybe 18-10, to make the playoffs.
That means the Bruins, who play USC at 5:45 this evening at the Sports Arena, can afford to lose only a couple of their remaining 16 games. They won't be able to do that unless they start shooting better and Tideback stops fouling out of games.
In the team's first nine games, the Bruins shot a dismal 37.4% from the field, and Tideback fouled out of three games and got in early foul trouble in a couple of others. She played only 22 minutes in a season-opening 67-60 loss to North Carolina and just 11 minutes in a 59-57 loss to Cincinnati. She played 17 minutes and scored but 4 points when the Bruins were routed by top-ranked Tennessee, 82-50.
Moore said that the team's "inability to put the ball in the basket" has been UCLA's chief problem and that "we've been our best opponent and our worst enemy. We've beaten ourselves."
She said that the UCLA offense "is geared to get the ball inside to Molly." But she added that Tideback "hasn't shot enough"--partly because foul trouble has cut down on her playing time, partly because she has felt "she is not shooting well."
UCLA and Tideback may be turning the corner. More will be learned about that against USC tonight.
At home last week, the team's shooting improved to 41% in its 72-57 defeat of California and to 42.6% in a 73-71 loss to Stanford, ranked eighth nationally and a co-favorite with Washington to win the Pac-10.
Tideback, freshman guard DeDe Mosman and freshman forward Elaine Youngs, a starter this year for UCLA's 34-1 volleyball team, did not play against Cal. They were benched for the game for violating "a team rule, something minor," said Moore, who would not elaborate.
Tideback bounced back with a good game against Stanford. She didn't foul out and led the team with 10 rebounds and 20 points, including 12 of 13 from the foul line.
She said she sometimes feels the pressure of being regarded as a savior of the UCLA program. "But I like a really big challenge," she said, "and now that conference play has started, it's time for me to really get started."
She might not have faced such a stiff challenge if she had stayed home and played for the University of Iowa. She was a consensus prep All-American as a senior and all-state for four years. She averaged 28 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots a game in 4 seasons at Columbus High in Waterloo.
The state of Iowa is willing to ship as much corn as possible to other states, but it didn't want to send Molly Tideback to UCLA.
She said that there was a lot of pressure on her to enroll at Iowa, where she and three other girls would have constituted "almost a whole team of Iowans."
Her mother and stepfather also wanted her to play for the Hawkeyes and refused to sign her letter of intent to UCLA. She said her natural father finally signed the letter.
She thinks that her mother and stepfather "didn't want me to go so far away. But right now my mom is accepting it more."
Moore said that when she saw that the situation was "kind of splitting the family and putting Molly in an uncomfortable position, we withdrew.
"But she was emphatic that (going to UCLA) was what she wanted to do. I give her credit. She did it against difficult odds and she made it work. Not a lot of 16- or 17-year-olds would go against what their parents wanted them to do."
Why was she so set on UCLA? Tideback said she has dreamed about playing for UCLA since she was about 9 and playing youth league basketball. She said she was probably influenced by Coach John Wooden's 10 NCAA championships with UCLA men's teams.
She said she has had some difficulty adjusting to college basketball because "there is so much more thinking in the college game than in high school. I'm learning that for sure."