For three years, senior guard Ofa Tulikihihifo led Northridge in scoring and gave Big West coaches reason to fear her when she stepped onto the court in a Matador uniform. But instead of breaking the Matador scoring record with the few points she needed last season, Tulikihihifo was sidelined for the year with a fractured tibia.

In her absence, the team matured. Forced to adapt with the absence of their star, new faces like senior guard LaJoyce King and junior center Katie Holloway took charge and piloted the upstart Matadors from a seventh place finish in league to the Big West semifinals, where they would eventually fall to the top-seeded Gauchos.

But today Tulikihihifo is back. And Big West coaches are ripe with anticipation to see how the Matadors (5-10 overall, 2-1 in the Big West) will respond to the melding of old and new – their impact in the conference this season depends on it.

“Early on in the season [Tulikihihifo] kind of struggled with her own confidence coming back because a lot of our own players stepped up last season; they all got better,” Head Coach Staci Schulz said. “When she came back, there was some doubt in her eyes, but that is starting to take the turn for the better. She’s got that scoring mentality again.”

Tulikihihifo broke the scoring record in an 87-73 loss to Montana on Dec. 17, but is averaging about five points fewer per game than she did in her junior season before her injury.

But where some might see struggle, Schulz is calling it balance.

“No one is riding on her shirt tails. We’re trying to get it done as a group [this season],” Schulz said. “We need to keep spreading the wealth. Obviously we have Ofa, but there are probably three or four other people who are continually stepping up for us. That is one of the key things for our team at this point.”

Senior guard Jamie McCaa and King are putting up 12.6 and 13.3 points per game, respectively, while senior guard Krisztina Fuleki is adding 10.3. King seems to be picking up right where she left off last year wherein she was selected to the Big West All-Tournament Team.

Coming off an impressive sophomore year in which she was selected the best “sixth man” in the conference, junior guard Katie Holloway is putting up 7.4 points per game so far this season.

“This is the best group of women we’ve had on the court to date,” Schulz said. “We’re [trying to] bring back the powerful Ofa that she was without losing a step with the other players.”

Numbers aside, Tulikihihifo has credited the year on the bench with helping her mentality as Northridge continues their quest for improvement.

“[Being injured was] good for me mentally,” Tulikihihifo said. “For the past three or four years I’ve been so much on the go, [but] slowing things up helped me mentally prepare for [this] season.”

Unfortunately for the Matadors, it seems that inconsistency has carried its legacy into the 2007 season.

“We need to improve in terms of showing up day in and day out,” Schulz said. “I keep telling the team that when we’re here, we’re good and when we’re not [then] we can get beat and it’s not the prettiest of basketball.”

The success the inconsistent Matadors hope to obtain will most likely hinge upon Tulikihihifo, but not in the same way it has in the past. As a senior and the obvious selection to lead a Northridge squad with considerable potential, Tulikihihifo must accept leadership as a new burden along with her scoring responsibilities.

“I have to be a leader on and off the court,” Tulikihihifo said. “I’m going to talk more. Since I wasn’t playing, it gave me a different perspective.”

Schulz is in her second season as head coach for this perpetually mediocre squad, and in her fifth season on staff. Despite the Matadors’ struggles in the past, Schulz remains optimistic for their future in the Big West conference. She hopes to ride the team’s stirring postseason run, and the return of Tulikihihifo, to new heights.

“With the win we had the other day and with the performance we had against Michigan State, our confidence level is coming around and now,” Schulz said. “[The players] are starting to feel the rivalry has come to life again with the opening [win] against Pacific.”

After the 72-50 win over Pacific to kick off their conference season, the Matadors narrowly lost at home to Fullerton 78-73. Fullerton was able to capitalize on 22 Northridge turnovers, converting them for 31 points. Despite sophomore center Crystal Hahs’ career-high 12 points, and double-digit scoring efforts from Tulikihihifo, King and McCaa, the Matadors were unable to make up for their offensive mistakes.

Northridge bounced back in its next match against Riverside as the Matadors cut its turnovers down to 11 to aid in the 69-60 win. Northridge shot 41.1 percent from the field, went 5-11 from the three-point line and shot 72 percent from the charity stripe to send the Highlanders to their first conference loss of the season.