UCLA center Natalie Williams was feeling fine during this week's practice sessions
that is, except for a small problem.
"It went all right," Williams said. "I was just having problems breathing."
That may sound overly dramatic. But Williams, who came down with bronchitis last week, managed to play through her condition during the Bruins' last two regular-season games at Oregon State and Oregon.
Her efforts in those games--26 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon State and 29 points and 22 rebounds vs. Oregon--lifted the Bruins to a spot in the NCAA tournament.
And both teams were able to concentrate on Williams because UCLA's other main scoring threat, guard Rehema Stephens, has been somewhat limited because of a stress fracture in her left foot.
"At Oregon, they had a little guard following me around everywhere, trying to prevent me from rebounding," said Williams, who led the Pacific 10 in rebounding and finished second in scoring.
"But I still managed to get 22 rebounds. And at Oregon State, they had two people on me. It got pretty physical."
The Bruins (19-9) will play host to a first-round game against Notre Dame (14-16) at 7 tonight at Pauley Pavilion.
If they beat Notre Dame, the No. 5-seeded Bruins will play at No. 4 Texas (21-9) on Sunday in the second round of the Midwest Regional.
Williams already has led the Bruins to two NCAA volleyball titles. Arizona basketball Coach Joan Bonvicini, who formerly coached at Cal State Long Beach, said Williams is the best center since Pam and Paula McGee were All-Americans at USC.
UCLA's Billie Moore has coached her share of standouts, among others Ann Meyers and Denise Curry at UCLA and Nancy Dunkle at Cal State Fullerton, but said Williams was especially impressive against Oregon.
"They, at various times, have dominated the game," said Moore of her other star players.
"But I don't think that I've ever seen a more dominating performance than Natalie's performance. It was as awesome a performance as I've ever seen. It was pretty incredible."
"Pure athletic ability, although I'd like to say coaching," she said, laughing.
Notre Dame reached the NCAA tournament by winning the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament.
"They've played a major schedule this year," Moore said. "You're not going to get a lot of wins with a schedule like that."
Moore tried to recruit Notre Dame's leading scorer, senior center Margaret Nowlin, who is averaging 16.6 points. Freshman guard Michelle Marciniak, averaging 12 points, is the second-leading scorer.
Among the other first-round games tonight are eighth-seeded Houston (22-7) at No. 9 UC Santa Barbara (26-4), and No. 10 Long Beach (21-9) at No. 7 Creighton (27-3). Both games are in the West Regional.
Even though Houston is the higher seed, Santa Barbara is the host team because the Cougars had an arena scheduling conflict. The Gauchos are expecting a crowd of 2,000 to 2,500, which would break the women's school record of 1,037 set last month against Long Beach.
Houston, making its second trip to the NCAA tournament, opened the season with one defeat in 15 games and a victory over Texas, the first in school history.
The Cougars finished No. 22 in the final AP poll and are led by senior guard LaShawn Johnson, who is averaging 15.2 points.
The Gauchos, whose five starters all average in double figures, will make their first NCAA appearance and received a national ranking--No. 25--on Monday for the first time.
Creighton, ranked No. 21, is also making its NCAA debut and hasn't lost at home in 26 games, dating to Dec. 9, 1990.
Senior forward Kathy Halligan of Creighton leads the nation from three-point range, having made 56 of 99 for 56.6%, and all five starters average in double figures.
The 49ers reached the West Regional semifinals last season and have never lost in the first round of the tournament.
Senior guard Trise Jackson is leading Long Beach in scoring with a 17-point average. But she was inconsistent during Saturday's 68-60 loss to Santa Barbara in the Big West final, going eight for 25.