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UCLA Delivers on '93 Promise

NCAA women: Sophomore class gets a chance to truly announce its arrival starting tonight against Michigan.

March 13, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Whether Kathy Olivier spoke of a five-year plan upon being hired by UCLA in 1993 is difficult to determine because not many people were paying attention.

The Bruins were coming off a lackluster season in the last of Billie Moore's 16 as coach. Olivier, a longtime USC and UCLA assistant popular with players, needed time to bring notice to a program that had earned only one NCAA tournament berth since 1985.

The time--and team--has arrived.

Behind a sophomore class that might be the best in the nation, UCLA begins tonight's first-round Midwest Regional game against Michigan with a 19-8 record. This will be the first season the Bruins have had fewer than 10 losses since 1981.

"We are right on track," Olivier said. "We've had several great recruiting classes, and it's really beginning to pay off."

Four starters and two key reserves are sophomores, so the ultimate payoff may be a year or two away, begging the question . . .

Are the Bruins simply glad to be here?

"The players' approach is interesting," Olivier said. "As much as they realize they are at the dance to gain experience, they want to dance a little. They believe in themselves."

No wonder. UCLA rebounded from an 0-3 start to win 14 of its last 17 with two of the losses coming against Pacific 10 Conference champion Stanford. The other came against Arizona, which the Bruins tied for second in the Pac-10.

As with many teams relying on youth, UCLA improved rapidly as the season progressed.

"I think of these sophomores as juniors by this time," Olivier said. "We are peaking right now."

Beating Michigan (19-9) will require containing 6-foot-3 center Pollyanna Johns, who averages 17 points and led the Big Ten in rebounds (9.6) and shooting percentage (62%).

UCLA will employ a straight man-to-man defense most of the game, requiring 6-4 sophomore center Janae Hubbard to cover Johns. Michigan's other threats include forward Molly Murray, who led the Big Ten in three-point shooting (40.8%), and guard Stacey Thomas, who averages 11.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and led the Big Ten with 3.1 steals a game.

Johns is especially active on defense, intimidating opponents who penetrate the key. UCLA has had success slashing into the paint and has no intention of stopping.

Much of the Bruin offense comes from the wings. All-Pac-10 forward Maylana Martin, a 6-3 sophomore, was second in the conference with a 19.1 scoring average, and forward Marie Philman averages 10.1 points.

However, a key will be whether Hubbard can produce against Johns. Hubbard averages 10.7 points and came on strong late in the season, making 54.7% of her shots over the last 13 games.

"Hubbard has great size and presence inside," Michigan Coach Sue Guevara said. "We've had some problems with players like her. It will be important for us to contain her."

The number of open shots Martin, Hubbard and three-point specialist Melanie Pearson get depends on how well sophomore point guard Erica Gomez distributes the ball.

Should the seventh-seeded Bruins get past 10th-seeded Michigan, they probably will play second-seeded host Alabama. Olivier, an assistant at USC when the Cheryl Miller-led Trojans won the NCAA title in 1984, won't look ahead.

"We overlooked teams early and got off on the wrong foot," she said. "That 0-3 start was a rude awakening. Now we don't look past the next game. If anything, we're overprepared for Michigan."

NCAA Women / Round One

UCLA (19-8)

vs. Michigan (19-9)

* When: 4 p.m. today.

* Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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