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Women's Preview

USC, UCLA Caught Up in Rising Level of Talent

November 16, 2005|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Last season, the USC women's team made the NCAA tournament after an eight-year drought. The season before, UCLA got in after three years of not qualifying.

This season, they both seem positioned to make the field for the first time since 1992.

USC, at No. 24, is ranked at the start of the season for the first time in 10 years. UCLA is not ranked, but the Bruins think they should be.

Along with threatening Stanford's reign atop the Pacific 10 Conference, both teams represent the talent level that has spread throughout the country.

Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson of defending champion Baylor thinks the effects of her team winning its first title also indicates the increasing depth of talent.

"What our championship did was give all programs hope that, 'If Baylor can do it in five years, why can't we if we invest the resources?' " she said. "Look at what the recognition does. You can't put a dollar figure on what [winning] meant to our university."

There are familiar names on top 25 lists -- Duke, Louisiana State, Connecticut and Baylor. But there's also Ohio State, North Carolina State, Temple, Notre Dame and Arizona State.

That's one reason why Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors isn't overly enthused about the Blue Devils opening at No. 1.

"The first time [a team enters the season No. 1] you are almost giddy because it's an exciting time," Goestenkors said. "Then you realize, sometimes painfully, that it doesn't mean anything. It's the postseason ranking that you want."

USC Faces Expectations

Last season, USC had a record of 20-11, tied for second in the Pac-10, made its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1997, knocked out Louisville in the first round, and came within an unlucky bounce of upsetting Michigan State, which went on to advance to the final.

The Trojans, who open their season in Hawaii on Saturday, have only one senior, Meghan Gnekow. But USC does have an experienced group of sophomores and juniors.

"We may not be as good as we were last year," Coach Mark Trakh said, "[but] everyone expects us to be better."

This season the expectations are greater, and USC could already be temporarily without two key starters: sophomore guard Brynn Cameron, the leading returning scorer (9.8), and junior forward Jamie Funn, who last season averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. Both have hip injuries.

But USC wasn't dependent on one player last season and the players seem to understand that attitude cannot change.

"We still have that bad taste in our mouths on how our last game ended," said sophomore point guard Camille LeNoir, who had 18 points in the Michigan State game. "We can't forget that because we have to build off that. We don't want that to happen again. It's our motivation."

UCLA Has Guards Up

UCLA, which opens against Baylor on Friday, returns all the starters from a team that was 16-12 last season. The Bruins are unranked but boast a veteran squad brimming with confidence and loaded with skill players.

Seniors Nikki Blue (16.9 points) and Lisa Willis (16.3), and junior Noelle Quinn (16.9) form one of the nation's best offensive backcourts. And they can do more than score. Blue averaged six assists, Quinn averaged 7.1 rebounds and Willis has ranked among the national leaders in steals the last two seasons.

Coach Kathy Olivier will depend heavily on them.

At the forward slots are Lindsey Pluimer (10.1 points, 6.4 rebounds), a sophomore, and Amanda Livingston (7.9 points, 4.4 rebounds), a junior. Both are expected to provide interior defense and rebound proficiently so either Blue, Quinn or Willis can ignite the fastbreak.

"Pluimer needs to get after it on the boards," Olivier said. "She's gained some weight. She hit a wall her freshman year and lost some weight, but she looks stronger. I would love for her to average a double-double, and I think that's realistic.

"Amanda plays bigger than she is.... She needs to stay healthy. She played at the end of the year with a knee injury that not many people knew about."

Like USC, UCLA has sustained a key injury. Redshirt junior Julia Pitts, who missed parts of the last two seasons with knee injuries, tore cartilage in her left knee and underwent arthroscopic surgery. She is hoping to return when conference play begins in late December.

Still, Blue, a three-time All-Pac-10 selection, can't wait to get started.

"I'm extremely excited about our team," she said. "We have a lot of talented freshmen, the returners have matured and we're playing as a team. We have that team-family chemistry. And that's what I'm looking forward to, our chemistry on the court.

"If we don't lose Noelle last year [to a knee injury], we get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, at least," said Blue, who along with Ann Meyers is the only Bruin woman with 1,300 points and 400 assists in her career. "And we could have made it to the Sweet 16, I think.

"This year we have to be healthy. If we keep all of us healthy, one through 15, then there's no telling what we can do."

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