Oct. 27, 2008
The Nikki Caldwell era began on April 17, 2008 when the former University of Tennessee player and assistant coach was announced as the fifth head women's basketball coach in UCLA history.
"Tennessee's loss is UCLA's gain," said Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, Caldwell's former mentor at UT. "Nikki Caldwell is truly one of the rising stars in women's college basketball. She is the complete package ... a teacher, a coach and a recruiter. She is a woman of great character and has a powerful gift of mentoring young women."
Caldwell, who spent the last six seasons serving as an assistant coach at Tennessee, welcomes back 10 returning letterwinners to her first Bruin team, eight of whom started at least two games a year ago on a unit which went 16-15 and tied for fourth in the Pac-10 Conference with a 10-8 mark. There are four returning starters in the mix, including four of the top five scorers, the top three assist makers and the top four on the team in steals.
"I have addressed the team on a number of occasions and talked about a theme - earned, never given," said coach Caldwell. "With that in mind, we will defend, we will board and get up and down the floor. There will be an up-tempo style of play based on our defense. We will seek to delay and disrupt ... changing our defenses up and extending our defense at times. We want to control the boards to control the tempo of the game. On offense, we will focus on player movement, ball movement and spacing. Our players will move with a purpose and take care of the ball. "
The two Bruins who make up the senior class will be keys to helping trigger that defensive pressure and maxing out the energy on the boards stressed by Caldwell.
Guard Tierra Henderson (5-10 senior) led the team and ranked tied for third in the conference in steals average (2.00). Henderson's hard-nosed defensive presence sets the tone for the team. She was recognized for her efforts by the league's coaches when she was named to the first-team All-Conference Defensive team. Henderson balanced her defensive efforts with the best offensive production of her career. She upped her scoring average from 5.1 in 2007 to 7.6 in 2008, despite playing less minutes. She also improved her shooting percentages from both the field and from the line.
"Tierra takes great pride in her defense," said Caldwell. "She has the defensive intensity needed to lock down an opposing player. She can generate deflections, which can turn into turnovers, helping to create offensive opportunities. Tierra must also continue to be an aggressive offensive player whose strength is playing off the bounce."
Center/forward Chinyere Ibekwe (6-4 senior) saw action in 28 games with three starts in 2007-08. She led the team in rebounds in four games and pulled down an average of 4.6 boards per contest over the last 15 games of the season. Ibekwe has played at a very high level at times during her Bruin career, as evidenced by her 21-point, 11-rebound effort versus Gonzaga as a sophomore and her key plays in the Pac-10 Tournament championship win against Stanford in her freshman season. She is poised to put it all together as a senior.
"I expect Rey to really commit to being a defensive stopper in the post," said Caldwell. "She must become an animal on the boards for us. Her offensive boards need to lead to put-back baskets. Offensively, Rey must work to use her athleticism and speed to go by people."
Erica Tukiainen (6-0 junior) is a versatile wing player who saw action in all 31 games last season and earned the starting nod in 22, including 15 of the final 16 contests. She played double figure minutes in 26 games. Tukiainen had 22 games in which she totaled one or less turnovers. Her total of 16 made three-point shots ranked third on the team. An outstanding student, she made the Athletic Director's Honor Roll and was an honorable mention selection on the All-Pac-10 Academic squad. She was also team co-captain a year ago.
"Erica is one of our hardest-working players and a great team player," notes Caldwell. "She has a variety to her game .... she can shoot the three and play off the dribble, and can handle multiple positions. She is expected to give us a threat from the three-point line and help extend defenses."
Moniquee Alexander (6-6 junior) appeared in 30 contests last season and started 15 times at the center position. She had a career-high 11 points in games against Tennessee and UC Riverside, while averaging 3.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per contest.
"Mo must become a presence on the low block for us," said Caldwell. "She will anchor the paint on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court and do a good job controlling the boards. She has to intimidate in the paint on defense."
Allison Taka (5-8 junior) saw action in five games last season. She is a true point guard, a vocal leader and a quality threat from the outside. Taka had two assists in the Pac-10 Conference tournament win over USC and three more in an earlier win at Washington State. An outstanding student, Taka earned at least a 3.5 gpa in all three quarters last year.
"Taka brings leadership and work ethic to the team," Caldwell noted. "She is someone a coach can count on to be a great teammate. As one of our best three-point shooters, she will help extend the defense." Five members of one of UCLA's most productive freshmen classes return after posting combined averages of 29.4 points and 15 rebounds per contest and starting a total of 59 games last season.
Leading returning scoring honors were shared by guard Doreena Campbell (5-10 sophomore) and forward Nina Earl (6-1 sophomore), who each averaged 8.7 points per game last season. Campbell, who started in 30 games, led the team in assists (101) while ranking eighth (3.37 average) in the Pac-10 Conference in that category. She was named to the Conference's first-team All-Freshman squad and was an honorable mention all-conference selection. She ranked fourth in the league in assist/turnover ratio (1.68) and had five games with no turnovers and six with just one. She connected on 23 of her 53 shots from beyond the arc for a .434 percentage, which was the third-best mark in school history.
"We will lean on Doreena for team leadership," said Caldwell. "She will play a large role in getting us in our offense. She will assist in the duties of being a point guard and she is capable of knocking down the open jumper and creating off the bounce as well. We expect her to get to the basket when we need it and get to the free throw line often. In addition, she is solid on defense and on the boards."
Earl appeared in all 31 games last season and earned the starting nod in 15. In addition to tying for second on the scoring list, she also tied for second on the team in steals with 47 thefts. Earl earned honorable mention honors on the Pac-10's All-Freshman and All-Defensive teams. She had a big game in the Bruin win at Arizona with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
"Nina is a returning player who gives us a balanced attack on offense and defense," said Caldwell. "She has multiple ways of scoring and did a good job of being an impact player in her first year. Nina gets after it defensively and understands ball pressure."
Guard Darxia Morris (5-8 sophomore) averaged 7.5 points per game in her first season and was named to the honorable mention All-Pac-10 Freshman and All-Pac-10 Defensive teams. She appeared in 28 games and started in 12 contests despite having her season interrupted by an early January knee injury. Morris put off knee surgery until after the season and went on to hand out 66 assists for the season. Her steals average of 1.64/g ranked ninth in the Pac-10 Conference. Morris stood out in two of the biggest wins of the 2007-08 season when she scored 20 in a win over then No. 2 Stanford and 19 in a Pac-10 Conference Tournament victory over USC. She will be brought along at her own pace in the early stages of practice after undergoing knee surgery following the 2007-08 season and is expected to be at full strength for the season.
"Rex can be the pulse of our team," said Caldwell. "She has the leadership to run the team. She can calm the waters during an opponent run and also be the vocal leader who gets everyone involved with her passing ability. Rex has been a warrior through adversity and embraced her role on the team, whether as a starter or coming off the bench. She must also continue to be a consistent offensive threat."
Forward/center Christina Nzekwe (6-4 sophomore) played in double figures in 25 of the 31 games she saw action in last season. She came off the bench in all 31 games to average 3.0 points and 3.1 rebounds. Her eight points, seven rebounds and four steals played a big part in the Bruins' win over the University of Washington in her hometown of Seattle last season.
"Christina has the ability to play inside but also has perimeter skills," said Caldwell. "We will give her the opportunity to display her offensive abilities outside and count on her to be a scoring threat on the inside as well."
Forward Candice Brown (6-3 sophomore) played in 26 games and made two starts in 2007-08. Her 10 blocked shots ranked fourth on the team. Brown was on the court for double figure minutes in 11 games.
"Candice has a level of determination that makes her tough to guard on offense," said Caldwell. "She can step out, as a post, and hit the mid-range jumper. In order to help our team control the boards, we need her to commit to being a rebounder."
To this mix of returning players, UCLA adds a couple of highly regarded newcomers in 6-0 guard Rebekah Gardner (Ayala HS in Chino Hills, CA) and 5-11 guard/forward Atonye Nyingifa (Redondo Union HS in Redondo Beach, CA), both of whom were CIF Players of the Year last season.
"We need Rebekah to bring her offensive mind-set with her to this level," said coach Caldwell. "Defensively, she can be a great rebounder from the guard position. Atonye must bring her aggressive style of play with her. She can hit the jumper or get to the hole and help us on offense by scoring in multiple ways. Defensively, she must get on the boards."
Caldwell, who is about to embark on her first season as a head coach, added, "It is an honor to have my first head coaching job here. UCLA represents a standard of excellence not only on the basketball court, but in the classroom. You win with people, and I can't think of a finer group to work with, from the administration to the faculty to the student-athletes."
The Bruins will face a schedule which features seven teams which advanced to post-season play last season. Five appeared in the NCAA tournament (Maryland, San Diego, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal); two played in the Women's NIT (Texas Tech and Kansas).