After winning a total of 11 games from 2001-2004, the CSUN women’s basketball team turned the tide last season, going 18-11, finishing fourth in the Big West Conference with a 12-6 record and participating in the Big West Tournament for the first time since joining the conference.
This year, expectations will be much higher, as the Matadors return all 11 of its players, including three-time Big West All-Conference senior Ofa Tulikihihifo. The combination of talent and experience could be valuable assets for CSUN, who after years of being picked to finish last in the Big West, are picked to finish third in the conference behind Long Beach State and consensus Big West powerhouse UC Santa Barbara, which has won the last 11 Big West Championships.
“We would love to finish exactly where we’re picked: in the top three,” said head coach Staci Schulz.
Last season Tulikihihifo averaged 19 points and nine rebounds, and was named to the Big West All-Tournament team after overcoming a late-season knee injury.
early this season, however, Tulikihihifo suffered a stress fracture of her left tibia during practice two weeks prior and has sat out since. Tulikihihifo will be re-evaluated on Nov. 14 and her status for the Matadors’ season opener is still undetermined.
“We’re early, we had two exhibitions, now we start with just a few games, so we’re not going to push her,” Schulz said. “Whenever she can be back, she can be back. I’m confident that we’ve got the ability to score with other personnel, more than last year.”
One of the players that could pick up the scoring slack for Tulikihihifo is junior LaJoyce King. King averaged 12 points in 2005, including a 22-point performance against Long Beach State on Feb. 3 and a 20-point performance against Idaho on Feb. 12. King could help provide a one-two scoring punch once Tulikihihifo returns.
Another player that has provided CSUN with scoring is junior Jamie McCaa. McCaa, the third leading scorer last year, had several key performances in 2005. She scored a career-high 26 points in a 73-50 win over Pacific on Jan. 27, then followed that effort with a 20-point performance against non-conference UC Davis four days later. She also led CSUN in scoring this exhibition season.
Another offensive weapon for CSUN is Krisztina Fuleki. Fuleki showed flashes of high-scoring ability, notching 27 points against both UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 20 and UC Davis on Feb. 26.
Jazelle Burries, Heather Cushing, Crystal Hahs, Katie Holloway and Kristin O’Rourke will provide CSUN with size up front while Ashley Blake, Megan Ching, Alexis Johnson and Cassandra Markovich are expected to contribute on the perimeter.
Schulz said one of the biggest adjustments she had to make was with responsibility.
“I had to get over that ultimate feeling of (being) responsible,” Schulz said. “It’s easy to share the wealth when we win, but it is really going to be my (fault) when things don’t go right, so I’ve had to learn how to get over that and still get some sleep.”
CSUN’s non-conference schedule looks tough, as the Matadors face off against Brigham Young University in their season opener at the Matadome on Nov. 19.
“They’re going to be huge tests, but our program has really stepped up to big challenges,” Schulz said. “As long as we compete in every one of those contests, I’ll be OK with that.”
The 2005-2006 season will also mark the final campaign for seniors Tulikihihifo, Cushing and Markovich. After enduring two losing seasons their first two years and helping turn things around last season, they hope that their last season will result in even more wins and a deeper push into the conference tournament in the spring.
“All of us want to go out with a bang,” Cushing said. “It is our last chance and we won’t get to do this again.”
Despite the high expectations and the projected third-place finish, Schulz stressed that what is done on the court is the thing that people will look upon the most when all is said and done.
“I talked to (the team) about that,” Schulz said. “We’ve got our respect, now let’s keep it and give them a reason why we’ve earned it.”
Ivan Yeo can be reached at email@example.com.