There was a point before this season when it appeared Lenita Sanford's basketball career was about to fizzle into nothingness.
Considering the trials of her first three college seasons, it would have been easy for the one-time five-star prep recruit just to wave the white flag and give it all up.
But that's not what Sanford did. Instead, the 6-foot-3-inch UNLV senior decided to finish her career with a bang.
The Lady Rebels are off to a 6-1 start, and Sanford has been the backbone of that success.
"Lenita is an intimidating factor inside, both on the offensive and defensive ends," fourth-year UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. "This is a team with many people who can step up, and she's one of those people."
Olivier said the same thing last year, but that was before her powerful forward/center was declared academically ineligible after just 11 games. The Lady Rebels' season spiraled downward from that point.
Though Sanford played in the 2007 McDonald's All-American Game as a senior at Lynwood (Calif.) High School, her collegiate career has been marked by problems. She was plagued by academic issues and a knee injury throughout her brief stays at Texas' Trinity Valley College and Florida's Chipola College before landing at UNLV last year.
And as this season's practices began, she still was not showing the spark that helped her dominate opponents in high school. That's when teammate and longtime friend Kelli Thompson read her the riot act.
"Kelli got into my ear," Sanford said. "She told me it was time to get my stuff together."
Sanford has heeded Thompson's advice. She is in good academic standing, and is averaging 11.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
Olivier said Sanford is a new player.
"Last year, she had a lot to learn," Olivier said. "This year she has improved her game so much. She is more disciplined and more mature."
Much of that growth can be attributed to Sanford's dedication on the practice floor.
"Her practice time is carrying over into games," Olivier said. "She's very active, and her whole game has come around."
Sanford said she had a lot of time to think about things while sitting on the bench last season.
"It took a lot out of me," she said. "It was hard, but I had people in my corner."
Though the inactivity was frustrating, it was not a complete loss.
"I watched what was going on," Sanford said. "I paid attention to how the team plays with each other and thought about how I could fit in better. I'm a basketball junkie. I watch everything."
She has used that knowledge to take over the leadership role this season.
"A lot of people are depending on me to be the voice," Sanford said. "It all starts with defense. If I get a block, the whole team gets into it. Everyone feeds off my energy."
Sanford had three blocks Sunday, but UNLV fell 64-45 to No. 20 Georgetown in the championship game of the Lady Rebel Classic at Cox Pavilion. She was held to season lows of six points and four rebounds.
Even so, Sanford remains optimistic. She refuses to make predictions about the significance of her team's strong start, but she said she has a good feeling about things to come.
"I don't want to get too far ahead," said Sanford, who was named Mountain West Conference player of the week Nov. 22 after back-to-back double-doubles in wins over UC Riverside and San Jose State. "But I think we are a way better team than we have been."
The Lady Rebels will begin three weeks of games on the road when they face Prairie View A&M on Saturday in the Cal Classic at Berkeley, Calif.