As UCLA became bogged down last year in a second straight losing season, Coach Kathy Olivier told those who would listen to be patient. She had confidence her incoming freshmen would provide an emotional lift and needed depth.
So far she has been right. Going into today's game against USC, the Bruins are 9-4, have won five straight games and lead the Pacific 10 Conference with a 4-0 record. First-year players Ortal Oren, Emma Tautolo and Julia Pitts have provided the expected help, although Pitts has been lost for the season because of a knee injury.
Two of the Bruin freshmen are more than support players, however.
Nikki Blue is living up to her billing as one of the more heavily recruited high school players in the country. The 5-foot-8 guard is the team's second-leading scorer (14.3) behind Michelle Greco, and has recorded career-best 26-point nights against Oregon and Baylor.
Lisa Willis has been more of a surprise. Initially considered another role player, the 5-11 forward has evolved into one of Olivier's top reserves by averaging 9.2 points and three rebounds. She is tied for third in the Pac-10 in three-point baskets (25), and is already fifth on UCLA's single-season list in that category.
"Lisa is surprising me in the fact she is working so hard," Olivier said. "Some of that has to do with our winning, but she also wants to play. And to be in there she knew she had to work harder.
"As for Nikki, we knew she would be a player. She has unbelievable athletic ability."
Willis, 18, had college suitors even after recovering from a torn ligament in her left knee during her sophomore year at Harbor City Narbonne High. But she never thought of going anywhere but UCLA.
"It wasn't basketball, it was the campus," Willis said. "I came to a summer [basketball] camp here when I was in the seventh grade. Me and my dad were walking around the campus and talking about how beautiful it was. From then on it was like, 'I want to go here.' "
For Blue, 18, choosing where to go after an outstanding career at Bakersfield West High was more agonizing.
"I was so confused on where I wanted to go," Blue said. "I thought I was definitely going to Connecticut. But I prayed about it, and I guess God told me this was the place for me. And this was the best decision. I have no regrets whatsoever."
Blue and Willis are eager to play their first UCLA-USC game. And neither seemed concerned about providing any bulletin-board material for the Trojans.
"We have talked about the game," Willis said. "That it's not about USC, it's about UCLA. They're another team we have to play. ... They play scrappy, but we don't need to play like them. We're the ones with a winning record. What we're doing is working."