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Cal Poly Star Learns There's More to Game Than Scoring Points : College Basketball: Demanding practices have improved the defensive techniques of Niki Bracken since she arrived as a 16-year-old freshman.

December 28, 1989|MITCH POLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the first time that Niki Bracken appeared in a basketball game for Cal Poly Pomona as a freshman, there has never been doubt about her offensive capability.

The 6-2 senior has been among her team's offensive leaders in each of her four seasons with the Broncos and averages a team-high 20.1 points this year.

With more than half of her senior season remaining, the 20-year-old NCAA Division II All-American center has eclipsed most of the school's career offensive records.

The long list includes most points in a career with 1,848; points in a season, 619; points in a game, 44; career field goals, 785; career field goal attempts, 1,556, and career scoring average, 17.8, and she ranks in the top 10 in most other statistical categories.

But, while the offensive production has pretty much remained constant, Bracken says she has taken giant strides in the rest of her game since she arrived at Pomona.

"Barb (Thaller, assistant coach) keeps telling me that I've matured a lot, and I think I have," Bracken said. "I know I wanted to get better and Barb has helped me. As a senior I feel like I'm much better than I did when I first started. I feel much better with the team and the way I react to things now."

Thaller, an assistant for 11 years under longtime Pomona Coach Darlene May, said Bracken may have been slow to develop because of her age when she entered the program.

"You have to realize that she was only 16 when she first got here," Thaller said. "The potential was always there but we were working with a 16- or 17-year-old youngster in her first two years. She didn't even say more than two or three words at the same time until she was a junior."

Bracken admits it was not easy to adjust at first to the demanding practices and coaching techniques of May.

"The first two years you have to adjust to her system," Bracken said. "You have to absorb it and listen to her if she yells at you because she knows what she's saying."

Perhaps Bracken's biggest improvement since her freshman season, Thaller says, has been during practices.

"The biggest thing I remember about her practices is that it was difficult just trying to get her to play hard," the coach said. "She works a lot harder in practice now. She's been a real good practice player and she has come a long way."

As a senior, Bracken said, her biggest improvement has been as a rebounder. She is averaging 9.9 rebounds, up from her 8.7 figure of last season.

"My first year I was really just out there playing, and then Barb stressed to me that I should get more rebounds," she said. "This year Coach (May) and Barb stressed that we should be blocking out more and that way we can get more rebounds. I think it's helped me a lot. I'm a big player and I can always get a lot of points, but if I average only eight rebounds it doesn't look too good."

She is also more comfortable on offense this season.

"My scoring is a little better because I'm jumping and hanging (in the air) better. I know what I want to do when I get the ball most of the time."

An intentionally lighter summer schedule may have been a benefit, Bracken said.

"I didn't do much of anything. I felt like I needed a break from school and basketball and I felt more relaxed going in as a result."

Bracken said she has also benefited from the return of 6-1 forward Marcine Edmonds, who missed last season with a knee injury, and the addition of 6-2 freshman center Danielle Carter, another strong inside player.

"They can't just key around me," she said. "I feel like I have more freedom. When I don't have the ball I can move around more easily so they can get the ball to me. I'm not always double-teamed as I was last year."

With more size on Pomona's front line this season, Bracken has also had more opportunity to play forward--her favorite position.

"I like playing forward but the coach knows she can use me either way," she said. "I know I can't play point guard, but the coach has the confidence that she can play me wherever she needs me."

Regardless of her position, the desired results have been the same.

Thaller said Bracken has more than lived up to their lofty expectations when they recruited her.

An All-CIF Southern Section selection as a senior at Compton High, Bracken was recruited by Division I schools Texas, UCLA and Cal State Fullerton.

So why did she decide to attend Division II Pomona?

"I wanted to get a chance to play right away," Bracken said. "I've never sat on the bench and I just wasn't going to do it for anyone. I probably could've gone to a Division I school, but I probably wouldn't have been able to play right away. Besides, those schools already had their big-name players."

She also wanted to play for a team that had a winning program, and Pomona certainly fit the description. The Broncos have won three Division II titles and finished second three times and won or shared eight straight California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships since 1982.

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