It's 3 p.m. at Ventura College and Amirah Leonard is nowhere to be found.

Ned Mircetic, coach of the Ventura women's basketball team, apologizes for his player's absence. He hasn't seen the sophomore guard in hours.

Members of the campus counseling office, where Leonard works part-time, say she is due to arrive any minute.

Finally, a compact car pulls up in front of the gym and a disheveled Leonard--attired in sweatshirt, stocking feet and sandals--spills out with an explanation.

"I'm having my hair braided," Leonard says. "It takes six hours."

Six hours?

"At least. Sometimes it takes two days."

Vanity, however, is not the point of Leonard's fastidious dedication to grooming. Basketball is.

"It's easier to play this way," Leonard explains. "I don't want to get it cut."

Besides, if appearances were all that mattered, Leonard would never have developed into a lethal three-point shooting threat.

Leonard last season took her long locks and unorthodox long-distance jump shot from Crescenta Valley High to Ventura and finished the season as the best junior college player in the state.

The only freshman starter for Ventura, Leonard scored 19 points in a 68-59 victory over Canyons at San Jose State and was named the tournament's most valuable player as the Pirates won a second consecutive state title.

"I was surprised," Leonard said. "I was only a freshman. But I worked my butt off in that tournament."

This season, it's been more of the same for Ventura and its unassuming star.

Ventura (34-1) plays Oakland Merritt (25-9) tonight at 8 in the opening round of the state tournament at Concordia University in Irvine. The Pirates have won 33 consecutive games and 105 of 107--most with Leonard launching her long-distance jumper.

Leonard averages a team-high 20.9 points and is closing in on another three-point record. With 77 three-point baskets, she is only five shy of the school single-season record set by Angela Williams in 1990.

By beating Merritt, Ventura will advance to the semifinals Friday at UC Irvine.

"It's been a lot harder this season," Leonard said. "We've had to work harder. Last year, everyone had so many skills, individually. This year, we don't have as much talent."

At Crescenta Valley, Leonard teamed with UCLA-bound Michelle Greco to form an area powerhouse. Leonard finished her three-year career in 1996 with 222 three-point baskets, second on the career Southern Section list.

All of which is a bit surprising considering her mechanics.

Leonard's two-handed, high-arching delivery more closely resembles a person heaving a medicine ball. The ball's trajectory resembles that of slow-pitch softball.

"But it goes in," Greco said. "I always enjoyed playing with Amirah. She was fun to watch. Some nights, she'd score in the 30s."

Leonard made 10 three-point baskets while scoring a career-high 44 points against Muir. Her 107 three-pointers as a senior ranks third on the Southern Section single-season list.

Leonard shrugs off her accomplishments. She honed her accuracy by shooting as many as 500 three-pointers a day, a regimen she no longer practices.

"No one ever taught me how to shoot, I just taught myself," Leonard said. "I always thought I was shooting it right. I shoot with the right hand but the other hand goes up too. Everyone says it looks terrible, but they say, 'Don't change it. Your shot's going in.' "

Mircetic didn't dare tinker with her form.

"It works for her," Mircetic said. "But she has become a complete player. We asked her to play defense and rebound and be an open-court player. She's doing all those things."

Several Division I schools, including Clemson and Nebraska, have expressed interest in Leonard.

In high school, Leonard largely was overlooked.

"All of them thought all I could do was shoot the three-pointer," Leonard said. "But then I came here and it opened my game up to all different aspects--driving to the basket, playing defense, on and off the ball, rebounding, fast-breaking. . . . "

Leonard leads Ventura in assists and is among the team's leading rebounders. In a 74-73 playoff victory over Valley, Leonard made the deciding free throws with five seconds to play.

Such performances have attracted the attention of more than recruiters. The big baskets, braids and being a campus employee have heightened Leonard's profile.

"This is a basketball school," Leonard said with a shrug. "The community support is amazing. If you're on the basketball team, people know who you are."

By now, Leonard needs no introduction.





* WHAT: First Round (Quarterfinals).

* WHO: Oakland Merritt (25-9) vs. Ventura (34-1)

* WHEN: Today, 8 p.m.

* WHERE: Concordia University, Irvine.

* TICKETS: $8. Admission good all day for games at UC Irvine Bren Events Center and Concordia.

* MATCHUPS: Ventura is three victories away from a third consecutive state title. The Pirates, ranked No. 1 in the state all season, have won 33 consecutive games and have lost only twice in 107 games. Sophomores Amirah Leonard and Lynda Amari are the mainstays from last season. Leonard, most valuable player of the state tournament last season, averages 20.9 points and 5.0 rebounds. Amari, an exchange student from France, averages 16.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. Merritt, ranked No. 14 in the state, finished third at 10-5 in the Bay Valley Conference. The Thunderbirds upset second-seeded Solano, 58-55, last week in the Northern Regional final.

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