Jinelle Williams played high school basketball at Brea Olinda, which means she experienced defeat about as often as a Harlem Globetrotter. Then she accepted a scholarship to UC Irvine and started to feel like a member of the Washington Generals, except the Anteaters were trying to win.
But they lost and lost and lost some more. During the three years she was the starting center at Brea, the Ladycats lost four times. In her first three seasons at Irvine, the Anteaters lost 69 games.
She led Irvine in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and Irvine managed two victories. She led the team in scoring and rebounding again last season, and they won five games.
You call that progress? They say those who work hard will be rewarded, but Williams was beginning to have serious doubts.
Then it miraculously came together. At the climax of her senior season, the Anteaters have earned more than just a little respect, which was all they reasonably could have hoped for. They won the Big West tournament and now Irvine's women's team makes its first NCAA tournament appearance Thursday night against Stanford in Palo Alto.
"Losing was something I wasn't used to and didn't want to get used to," Williams said. "I just couldn't shake it off like some people could. I don't know if my teammates used to hate me for it, but I'm glad I never bought into a losing mentality. Maybe if I had we wouldn't be here."
It's probably going to be a here-today-gone-Thursday-night experience for the Anteaters, who don't stand much of a chance against the 26-2 Cardinal. But Williams will never forget celebrating with her teammates in UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center after they beat Pacific for the Big West tournament championship.
"In a way, it was like a flashback to high school for me," Williams said, "but this meant so much more. It's not just another championship in the Brea dynasty. It's here. We did it here.
"We were the first (Irvine) team to ever win the conference, the first to go to the NCAAs. And we worked very hard and went through a lot of heartache to get it."
When Williams was a senior, Brea won the State championship with a 33-1 record. The Ladycats used to win more games in a week than the Anteaters did during her entire sophomore season.
Coach Colleen Matsuhara watched Williams direct her anger into inspired practices. She watched her persevere. She watched her survive and help lead the Anteaters to basketball's promised land.
"Jinelle keeps most of her feelings directed inward," Matsuhara said, "but all that losing was very tough on her. It wasn't only that she wasn't accustomed to it, she's also one of the most competitive players I've ever worked with."
That's pretty much a given. A 5-foot-9 post player on a struggling team doesn't score more than 1,200 points and grab almost 800 rebounds without being competitive. She's third on the school's all-time scoring list (1,252 points) and second in rebounding (793).
When it counted most, Williams had 39 points and 22 rebounds in Irvine's three tournament victories last week.
"My brother always talked about how hard she worked," said Maz Trakh, an assistant with the Irvine men's team and brother of former Brea Coach Mark Trakh. "He was always amazed at how much she accomplished as a 5-9 post player, at that level.
"Look at what she's doing at this level as a 5-9 post player."
Thursday night, Williams will be battling for rebounds against women between five and eight inches taller. But what's a couple more inches when you're always looking up?
"I just don't think about it much," she said, smiling. "If I did think about being in there with all these 6-4 girls, I'd probably start crying. I don't think about being 5-9, I just think I'm another starting forward on a college team and I need to get the job done."
Clearly, it's a workmanlike effort. No soaring jump hooks. No flying rebounds. Just the same, there are pump fakes that lead to points and block-outs that result in rebounds.
"I'm not going to outjump somebody, so I guess you can say that I'm fundamentally sound because I have to be," she said. "I can't just turn around and shoot, either. Believe me, I've tried and it doesn't work.
"I have to make a move and use my quickness. I don't know if I necessarily do those things better than anyone else, I just know I have to do it."
W hen Williams moved from Florida to California in the eighth grade, she had never played sports. But athletics were in her genes. Gene Williams, her father, played pro football with San Francisco and San Diego.
She was more interested in Barbie dolls than Buffalo Bills and when asked what position her father played, she had no idea.
When a coach asked her to try out for the eighth-grade team, she agreed but told him that she had no clue about the game beyond "the object was to get the ball into that little hoop."
She learned the rules, basic skills and finally the nuances quickly enough to start on the varsity team as a sophomore.
"At first, it was just something to do," Williams said. "but when I got to Brea, maybe it was the attention we got from the school and papers, but it was like, 'Wow, this must be the thing to do at Brea.'
"I stuck with it and started to really love it. And it also became like a family situation there."
If Brea was a Father Knows Best family, Irvine was the Simpsons. But Williams says there has been little bickering or questioning of Matsuhara's system.
"There really wasn't any back-stabbing," she said. "We're all good friends.."
They hung together, hung on and were rewarded with the Great Transformation of 1995. Irvine went 12-6 in conference, won the tournament title and is one game shy of a 20-victory season.
"I never envisioned this," Williams said, "even at the beginning of the season after we started winning. I knew we could go far and have a great season, but to end up one of the best 64 . . . "
"Before the tournament, I was thinking about my career coming to end and about losing all those games, you know, thinking it made me stronger and better at handling adversity and all that.
"But now I can put the losing in perspective. That's just what it took to get where we are now."