Tulikihihifo returns motivated for senior year

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For CSUN basketball star Ofa Tulikihihifo, her father, her family, her teammates and her coaches have been instrumental in her success on and off the basketball court.

Tulikihihifo, a 5-foot-11 senior forward on the women’s basketball team, returns after a 2004-05 season that saw her average 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. She helped the Matadors to their best season since joining the Big West Conference in 2001.

Tulikihihifo, who is from Hawthorne, was introduced to basketball when her father built a hoop in the front yard in 1993. Since then, there was no turning back for Tulikihihifo.

“It was kind of one of those things you had at home that you had to use,” Tulikihihifo said. “My brothers were playing, so I wanted to get into it.”

Tulikihihifo attended Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach where in addition to basketball she played tennis and participated in track and field. Tulikihihifo was supposed to go to rival Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, but her transfer requests were denied.

“I tried, but (Mira Costa) kept denying it, so I tried at Redondo,” Tulikihihifo said. “I tried out for the tennis team and (Redondo Union) said they were going to keep me so I ended up getting a permit.”

Tulikihihifo said that whenever the two schools played against one another, Mira Costa tried to persuade her to come back to their school, but Tulikihihifo, as Mira Costa once did to her, turned down their offers.

When Redondo Union played Mira Costa, the school said, “Oh, your papers didn’t go through and we can take you,” Tulikihihifo said. “Then they also knew I played basketball and track (so) I was like there’s no way I’m going back there,” she added.

Tulikihihifo graduated from Redondo Union in 2002, which brought her to Northridge. Staci Schulz, now the Matadors head coach after serving the last three seasons as an assistant, arrived at Northridge at the same time.

“She has great athleticism,” Schulz said. “Her turn-around jumper is good. She has that scorer’s mentality. She’s the best team player,” she said. “(Tulikihihifo’s) always willing to improve and we expect her to have a good season.”

Like most student athletes who relocate to campus, Tulikihihifo had to adjust to the lifestyle that came with being a college student.

“That was huge,” Tulikihihifo said. “Just having to live on my own, be independent and having to cook for myself and clean for myself, wake up for practice, time managing – Here, you’re on your own.”

Tulikihihifo looked up to former Matadors’ Catrina Garcia and Brezya Rhodes, team captains during the 2002-03 season, as role models. Tulikihihifo also kept in contact with her father during her first year.

Tulikihihifo soon adjusted to the university lifestyle and is now living in an apartment with teammates Heather Cushing, Krisztina Fuleki and Alexis Johnson.

“It’s cool, we get to see each other every second of the day,” Tulikihihifo said. “Sometimes you have your little arguments, but at the end of the day, we’re all cool. “We discuss practices, stuff we need too work on, and stuff our team needs to work on.”

Jamie McCaa, a junior on the team and one of Tulikihihifo’s former roommates said Ofa is the kind of person one can always look up to.

“She always had something to say,” McCaa said. “She would always talk to me and if I ever needed anything, I could always count on her.”

The CSUN women’s basketball team won only two games in 2002. In 2003, the Matadors went 3-24 overall and 3-13 in conference play. The following season the Matadors doubled their wins with a 6-20 record overall and 5-13 in conference play. On both occasions, finished last in the Big West.

The 2004-05 season, however, finally saw the Matadors step up to the challenge, as they finished fourth in the Big West with a record of 18-11, 11-7 in conference, earning the Matadors its first trip to the Big West Tournament.

“I think everyone was starting to know their roles,” Tulikihihifo said. “We had two years under our belts with the coaches. They knew how to mix things together, so we pretty much knew our record was going to be better.”

CSUN started slowly in conference play, going 3-4 in its first seven games, but soon turned the tables, winning its next eight games, including a 68-63 home win over second-place Idaho on Feb. 12 and a 66-63 road win over third-place Long Beach State in Long Beach.

“It was great,” said Tulikihihifo on the win over Long Beach State. “They’re one of our rivals and we love playing at the Pyramid. It was huge for us.”

Tulikihihifo averaged close to 20 points in conference play, but suffered a knee injury during the Matadors’ 83-81 double overtime win over Cal Poly on Feb. 17. The injury came at the worst possible time, with the Matadors’ next opponent being Big West Conference powerhouse UC Santa Barbara at the Thunderdome. Tulikihihifo missed the game and the Matadors lost 74-46.

“It just sucked,” Tulikihihifo said. “I felt so bad because I really wanted to play them at their place.”

Tulikihihifo missed the rest of the regular season, but returned for the Matadors’ Big West Tournament matchup against UC Riverside and playing through the pain. Tulikihihifo said she received a little inspiration from her father just before the second half.

“He said give it all you got, this is it,” Tulikihihifo said. “Don’t worry about it. Your legs are fine, play with your heart.”

Tulikihihifo did just that, scoring 14 points, including eight in overtime as the Matadors came away with the 62-58 win.

CSUN eventually came up short in the tournament, losing to Santa Barbara 69-57 in the semifinals. But the loss did not dampen the Matadors’ enthusiasm heading into the 2006 season.

“We’re really working our butts off,” Tulikihihifo said. “We’re running hard, lifting hard and trying to eat right.”

CSUN’s biggest change for the upcoming season occurred at the head coaching position, when Tammy Holder resigned to become the top assistant at South Carolina in June. After a nationwide search was conducted, CSUN decided to hire close to home, and promoted Schulz to head coach.

We’re excited to have her,” said Tulikihihifo of Schulz. “We love her style of play and we can’t wait to use her philosophy to run.”

“She’s been in the program this whole time. She deserves to be the head coach,” Tulikihihifo added.

Tulikihihifo is majoring in broadcast journalism and is interested in field reporting for sports or music if she does not play at the professional level.

Tulikihihifo said the most important thing is to graduate from college.

“My father is the first to tell me to use basketball as a tool (for) education,” Tulikihihifo said. “He always reminds me that education is the No. 1 reason why I’m here, and basketball is just an activity.”

As for her expectations of the upcoming season, Tulikihihifo said one of the goals for the season is to end the decade-long reign of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos as Big West regular season and tournament champions.

“We expect nothing less than to win the Big West Conference, and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Ivan Yeo can be reached at ivan.yeo.80@csun.edu.