UC IRVINE NOTEBOOK / JOHN WEYLER : Point Guard Thomas Tries to Catch Up as Her Teammates Keep Climbing

The women's basketball team continues to reside in the Big West penthouse, undoubtedly wondering when the vertigo will strike.

Meanwhile, point guard Tamera Thomas still is trying to get out of the doghouse and move on up with her teammates.

The Anteaters (8-4, 5-0) are off to their best start in conference in a decade and already have won more games than they did in any of the previous five seasons.

Thomas was a key player in the early going. She scored in double figures in each of Irvine's first six games, was second in scoring with an average of 14 points and led the team in three-pointers.

Then the Anteaters went to play sixth-ranked Colorado and Thomas forgot her shoes . . . and apparently her role as well. She bought new shoes in time for the game, but obviously wasn't wearing her thinking cap.

"Early in the year, Tamera showed great court sense and she had stepped up her leadership role," Coach Colleen Matsuhara said. "But by the time we got to Colorado, she was up in Pike's Peak somewhere. She wasn't focused.

"She was committing too many turnovers, too many unforced errors. She made 17 turnovers in two games."

Matsuhara did not start Thomas for the Big West opener against Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 4 and the 5-foot-2 junior has been battling to regain the form that vaulted her into the starting lineup for the final eight games last year.

These middle-of-the-season blues seem to be a regular malaise for Thomas, who had a similarly up-and-down 1993-94 season.

"I started off well early last year and then lost it somehow along the line," she said. "This year, I decided that wasn't going to happen. I was determined to be more strong-minded.

"I don't think I've ever had a problem with low confidence. Last year, it was more missed opportunities that took me out of my game. I wasn't getting the kind of playing time I felt I should and I felt the pressure when I got a chance."

When this season began, Thomas had the starting job. "I actually feel like I'm needed and that's important," she says. "And I like having the responsibility."

Things progressed nicely for a while, then she started trying to do a little too much.

"She was trying to make things happen and she was just forcing things," Matsuhara said. "She just needed to downshift one gear."

Thomas was back in the starting lineup after two games as a reserve, returning for Irvine's 81-76 victory over Nevada Las Vegas. Mindful of her RPMs, she scored one point, but had only four turnovers with five assists and three steals.

Thomas' furious defense is one aspect of her game that has never flagged and a key to her playing time. She is the Anteaters' most tenacious backcourt defender.

"Defense is the most fun part of the game for me," she said. "I'd rather make a good pass than score and I'd rather make a steal than anything. It gets the whole team excited."

During the last two Anteater victories, Thomas has had seven steals and only six turnovers. She also has made seven of 15 shots from the floor and scored 20 points.

Apparently, she doesn't have to fret much about playing time. During Sunday's 60-52 victory at Hawaii, she played 38 minutes.

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Chemistry test: The five Anteaters who have started the majority of this season's games--seniors Jinelle Williams, Cher Scanlon, Michelle Kahler and juniors Allah-mi Basheer and Thomas--have suffered through a 7-47 record over the last two seasons, but they have come together and turned things around.

"We all learned a lot and we've learned each other over the last couple of years," Thomas said, "We know we're a good team now. We believe we can beat anyone when we take the floor.

"Last year, we thought we could be good, but I don't think we felt like we could beat anyone. We didn't really have it in our hearts like we do now."

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Rookie schmookie: Freshman forward Kevin Simmons was a passenger in the car driven by teammate Tchaka Shipp last July when Shipp fell asleep at the wheel and the car hit a tree and flipped over. Shipp was seriously injured and in a coma for nine days. But Simmons suffered only cuts and bruises. It's a good thing for the Anteaters he wasn't seriously hurt.

Simmons leads the team in scoring (14 points a game) and rebounding (eight) and his play at the low post has been Irvine's most consistent source of offense.

He certainly isn't playing like freshman.

"If I did, we'd really be in trouble," he said.

Notes

The men's volleyball team can account for half of last season's victory total by beating Princeton in its season opener Sunday night in Crawford Hall. The Anteaters were 2-20 last year . . The men's and women's swim teams are 3-3 after posting dual meet victories in Northern California last week. Senior diver April Gibbs won both the one- meter and three-meter springboard events to pace the women to a 124-88 victory at San Jose State. And senior Pat Keenan recorded personal bests in winning the 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly as the men's team edged Pacific, 92-91 . . . The men's tennis team, ranked No. 37 in the country, plays host to Loyola Marymount at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before matches against No. 29 New Mexico Friday and No. 25 Minnesota Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M. The Anteaters opened the season with a 7-0 victory over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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