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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL Pacific 10 Conference opener, USC
at UCLA, 7 p.m, No TV

That's What Blue Will Do

Junior point guard has been the blue-chip draw that has rejuvenated the Bruins

December 28, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Kathy Olivier knew how important it was to persuade Nikki Blue to choose UCLA for school and basketball.

It wasn't just that Blue was a physically blessed athlete who'd earned prep All-American accolades while setting CIF Central Section scoring records at Bakersfield West High.

She was the kind of blue-chip recruit who, lately, was turning down UCLA and other West Coast schools -- except for Stanford -- to join other high-profile NCAA Division I programs at Connecticut, Tennessee, Duke and Texas.

"I think she's absolutely huge for this program," the UCLA women's coach said. "Nikki was someone who had played a lot of AAU basketball, and people knew her name. Good players knew her. Good people want to play with her."

So Olivier worked hard at recruiting Blue. She didn't know it then, but she didn't have to work that hard. UCLA was already high on Blue's list. "It was a childhood thing," recalled Sabrina Hunter, Blue's mother. "I remember her saying it during her sophomore year in high school going to a UCLA game, and she was sold. She was excited. She doesn't show emotions, but she did then.

"She made the decision alone. I told her I could not influence her. I didn't want her saying, 'Mom wanted me to stay.' "

Still, Olivier's hard work paid off.

"Kathy also did convince me to come," Blue said. "She told me it was an opportunity to make UCLA into a great program. She trusted me, and, if I trusted her, we could make something great. And it has happened."

Look at the record. The two seasons before Blue enrolled, the Bruins were 15-43. In her first two seasons, UCLA was 35-24. Last season, the Bruins went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.

The revival continues. Despite a two-game road losing streak going into tonight's Pacific 10 Conference opener against USC at Pauley Pavilion, the 6-3 Bruins have gotten national attention with upsets of Texas and Purdue, and spent three weeks in the top 25.

Blue, 20, a two-time All-Pac-10 first-team selection, is more than Olivier's point guard and offensive trigger. The 5-foot-8 junior is the Bruins' conscience. She plays with an edge and has no problem knocking someone down on her way to the basket. But she will help that player get back up.

"All the women in our family are strong-willed," said Hunter, who lives in Bakersfield and has been a school-bus driver for 19 years. "Nikki is no exception."

When she is at full speed on the fastbreak, looking for Lisa Willis on the wing for a three-pointer or finding Noelle Quinn, who can score from either inside or outside, or going to the basket herself if the defense fans out to guard the other players, Blue can give opposing coaches sleepless nights.

"She has a significant skill level," Ohio State Coach Jim Foster said. "And Nikki has a great complementary core, which allows you to keep growing as a player."

Adds Arizona State Coach Charli Turner Thorne: "She gets you on both ends of the floor. Her hands are quick, and she anticipates so well. Say what you want about scoring, she can dominate ... at times on [the defensive] end. And really impressive is when a player like her continually improves. That gains a lot of respect in everybody's eyes."

Still, it hasn't quite been the season that Blue and others expected, coming off her 33-point performance against Minnesota in the NCAA tournament last year.

She has been injured, starting with a high ankle sprain before the season started. On Dec. 19 against Illinois, Blue took an elbow to the head, suffering a concussion, and had to sit out the game at Ohio State.

"I'm trying not to be frustrated," said Blue, who is averaging 10.4 points and 4.9 assists. "The good thing is, I have a good support system, so I never get down on myself. I stay positive."

Her maturation at UCLA has been steady.

As a freshman, she could do pretty much what she wanted.

"All I had to worry about was scoring, because Coach got on [seniors] Michelle Greco and Natalie Nakase," Blue said. "But starting my sophomore year, it was my turn."

That's when Olivier told Blue to run the offense. Things didn't always go smoothly. Although Blue is a team player, she occasionally tried to win games by herself.

Last season at Washington, things came to a head when Olivier, displeased by Blue's play, grabbed her by the jersey and got in her face.

"Afterward I was embarrassed," Olivier later confided. "I'd never done that before, and I didn't want her thinking, 'What's wrong with her?' "

But the move had the desired effect.

"It shocked me. But it also lit a fire in me," Blue said. "I know how much she loves me. On the court, the point guard has to be the voice of the coach and be on the same page all the time.

"I can be stubborn, like things my way. But she's the boss. I had to realize that. And it has made our relationship grow. She's the person I trust the most, after my family."

Getting her degree is important to Blue, a history major, "because I would be the first in my family to graduate from college."

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