Recently in Women's Basketball Category
Thea Lemberger was recently named to the Jewish Sports Review's 2011-12 College All-America Basketball team. She started 29 of the Bruins 30 games last season and averaged 12.0 points per contest (15th in the Pac-12 Conf.). She was also listed in the conference rankings in assists (13th-3.0/g), free throw percentage (9th-.713), three-point field goals made (10th-1.3/g) and minutes played (5th-34.6/g).
Team USA wrapped up its international women's basketball tournament in China with a 65-55 win over the Chinese National "B" team. The Americans, which featured several players from the Pac-12 conference, including UCLA's Rebekah Gardner, finished with an 8-1 record on the tour.
Gardner was named MVP of the Zhongxian stage of the tournament and was named All-Tournament in the first stage of the event in Fuling, China. She averaged 11.7 points on the trip and scored in double digits in seven contests.
The start of the new WNBA season is right around the corner for former Bruins Darxia Morris and Noelle Quinn. Morris was signed by the Los Angeles Sparks during the off-season and scored four points and handed out five assists in a 98-71 exhibition win over the Chinese National team over the weekend. The Sparks will host the Japanese National team on May 10 at LA Southwest College before starting the regular season on May 18 at the Seattle Storm. Quinn was traded to the Washington Mystics over the off-season and her new team will be in action on May 10 in an exhibition contest at the Chicago Sky. The Mystics open the regular season versus Chicago on May 19.
Rebekah Gardner helped lead Team USA to a couple of wins over the weekend in the Xiangyang stage of an international women's basketball tournament being played in China. The Americans defeated Austrailia 66-39, with Gardner scoring six points and grabbing four boards. The USA added an 84-36 win over New Zealand, which up its record on the trip to 7-1. Gardner scored eight points in that second contest. The All-Star team will wrap up its trip to China with a game against the "B" team from the Chinese National squad.
Team USA member Rebekah Gardner was named the MVP of the Zhongxian stage of the international women's basketball tournament being played this week in China. She scored 14 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in the final game of the tournament, a 90-58 win over Australia on May 3. Gardner scored in double-digits in each contest in this three-game stage of the event, including a double-double (10/10) in a win over China. Earlier in the week, Team USA bested New Zealand, 83-36, behind 15 points from Gardner, in a game played before over 3,000 fans.
Rebekah Gardner helped lead Team USA to a pair of wins in the second stage of an international women's basketball tournament in China. The Americans defeated China 66-43 on Wednesday, May 2, in a game played in Zhongxian City. Gardner recorded her first double-double of the tournament with 10 points and 10 rebounds in that contest. Earlier in the week, Team USA bested New Zealand, 83-36, behind 15 points from Gardner, in a game played before over 3,000 fans.
UCLA's Rebekah Gardner was selected to the All-Tournament team after the conclusion of the three-day event in Fuling, China. Team USA finished with a 2-1 record in the tournament. The Americans bested New Zealand on Saturday by a score of 73-42, behind 12 points and two steals by Gardner. On Sunday, the host Chinese team came from behind and topped the USA 60-58. Gardner scored 16 points in that contest against the host team and grabbed four rebounds. The competition for the USA All-Star team, which features several players from Pac-12 schools, continues this week in another Chinese city.
Rebekah Gardner helped lead Team USA to a win over Australia in the first round of an international women's basketball tournament in Fuling, China on April 27.
Gardner, who led the Bruins in scoring in her senior season with a 15.9 ppg average, poured in 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and had three steals in the 77-47 victory over the Aussies.
The USA team, which features several players from Pac-12 schools, will play New Zealand on Saturday in the second game of the three-game event before meeting the host squad from China.
Both UCLA men's and women's basketball teams will have a signed player in action at today's McDonald's High School All-Star Games. The women's game tips things off this afternoon at 4 p.m. (Pacific) on ESPNU from the United Center in Chicago, with coach Cori Close's recruit Nirra Fields, a standout from Mater Dei HS taking the court. In the second contest of the evening, versatile 6-7 Kyle Anderson, from St. Anthony HS in Jersey City, NJ will be in action beginning at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN.
One final inbounds heave by Markel Walker, and so ended the 2011-2012 season for UCLA women's basketball.
No. 12 Arizona pulled off the 61-57 upset over the fifth-seeded Bruins Wednesday at the Galen Center, using a second-half comeback to thwart UCLA in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Bruins actually got off to a promising start, registering their first four points on baskets from Mariah Williams and Rhema Gardner while getting the stops on defense, but the dynamics were to change. UCLA committed all nine of its first-half turnovers within the final seven minutes of the first period, and the lead all but disappeared heading into halftime. The miscues were indeed the key components to this game, given that the Bruins had hopes of executing a controlled transition game. Instead, both teams combined for 41 turnovers on the day.
"The number one thing we talked about was that we could not afford to have live-ball turnovers, "UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "The emphasis during our film session leading up to today was how Arizona wants to turn the first three minutes of the game into a track meet. The bottom line is, you cannot turn the ball over against Arizona and try to control the game. We did a better job in the second half, but the momentum had really shifted by then."
The scoring pace picked up noticeably in the second period, and the Bruins seemed to distance themselves comfortably with an 8-2 run midway through, but Arizona's Davellyn Whyte, Candice Warthen, and Shanita Arnold caught fire. The trio made a habit of knocking down the three-ball at critical junctures to cut into UCLA's lead. Down the stretch, Warthen banked in a runner to give Arizona the 59-57 lead with 20 seconds left in the game, and and an empty possession for the Bruins on the ensuing play just about sealed the results.
Some parting thoughts: Looking at the revolving door that was the Bruins' roster, it was a season undeniably defined by trials and tribulations. To be sure, today's loss will be a tough one for the Bruins to take, considering the numerous opportunities that presented themselves. But what has also been clear is that through each win and each loss, this team was united. The most lasting example lies in the strong ties formed between Close, the first-year head coach, and Rebekah Gardner, the Bruins' lone senior.
"Rebekah was the first to buy in and commit to where we wanted to go as a program," Close said. "She will always have a special place in my heart for that. It has been such a joy to watch her grow, and she was a tremendous motivator for me throughout the year."
Call it one spiced-up rubber match, if you will. After splitting the two-game season series, UCLA and Arizona will clash for a third and final time Wednesday at the Galen Center, one of four first-round match-ups in the 2012 Pacific Life Pac-12 Tournament.
Of course, it's hardly just bragging rights that are at stake. A loss for either team and the season comes to a close - no consolation rounds, no WNIT invitation, no March Madness. A win would obviously extend the venture into the conference tournament and keep the postseason chances alive, as faint as those might be. With that being said, the following are some thoughts on what to expect come tip-off tomorrow.
A Guard-Heavy Wildcat Offense
Arizona might be dead-last in the conference standings at 3-15, but the Wildcats certainly don't make for an idle scoreboard, owning the fourth-highest scoring offense in the Pac-12. That isn't too surprising considering the three mainstays of the Arizona backcourt. In fact, the trio of Davellyn Whyte (17 points per game), Candice Warthen (11.6), and Shanita Arnold (10) account for more than half of the 67.1 total points Arizona averages per game. As they did in the two regular-season games against UCLA, the Wildcats will likely look to push the tempo of the game, which wouldn't actually be a bad thing for the Bruins as long as they can control the defensive boards.
The Inverse to Arizona's Backcourt: Defensive Rotations
The question then remains: how to rein in the Wildcat's dynamic guard play? Look for the Bruins to counter by going to their zone defense. There's no doubt that this season has been an exhaustive one for the short-handed blue and gold. But in order for the Bruins to advance in the tournament, they'll have to stay sharp on their feet and get the necessary stops.
"It's going to be a team effort on defense," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "We want to be able to set our defense, slow Arizona down, and prevent it from being a one-on-one game. We want to make it one-on-Bruins, and to the extent that we can make it that type of game will be the extent to which we can play our style."
Inside touches will be harder to come by for the Bruins
The last time these two teams met, UCLA clearly held the advantage in the post. Kacy Swain notched career highs with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Rhema Gardner made it a point to crash the glass, reeling in 12 rebounds. This time, though, the Wildcats will have the services of 6-foot-5 center Aley Rohde (who did not play in the Bruins' 72-58 victory on Feb. 25) to pair with Erica Barnes.
Will the Bruins hold as thorough of an advantage as they did previously? Taking into consideration the addition in size for the Wildcats, the stakes, and a neutral venue, likely not. But as has been clear all season long, UCLA's success will rest on the ability to get out in transition. In other words, rebound and run, and an appearance in the second looks that much more likely for the Bruins.
Frankly, it wasn't the ending UCLA was hoping for, at all. The Bruins came into the final week of the regular season with the hopes of locking up the No. 4 seed in next week's Pacific Life Pac-12 Tournament (with a slight chance of overtaking USC for the No. 3 seed). But in the end, that plan was foiled after the Bruins lost out to Washington State 76-65 on Thursday before faltering against Washington 67-59 earlier today. The wrap-ups of the two games and the tournament implications are below:
Against the Cougars
Never mind that the Bruins looked flat-flooted coming out of the gate; the Cougars got off to a blazing start on Thursday night, instantly building a big lead by dialing and connecting from beyond the arc. Washington State's Sage Romberg and Rosie Tarnowski each went 2-of-2 on three-point baskets in the first half, and the Cougars collectively shot 10-of-21 from distance by game's end. Trailing by as many as 19 points at the 15:27 mark in the second half, the Bruins managed to make a game of it during the waning minutes, but the slow start ultimately proved too costly.
Also of note: Markel Walker, who has been a warrior when it comes to playing with pain this season, looked down and out for the count on several occasions in this game. The worst run-in came with 9:08 left in the first half, when the Cougars' Rosetta Adzasu shouldered into Walker going after a loose ball, and the Bruin forward had to come out of the game nursing her shoulder. But Walker eventually returned to action, her uncanny propensity to tolerate pain showing through once again.
Against the Huskies
The last time these two teams met, UCLA pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind win against Washington that had the Bruin home crowd in an absolute tizzy. Well, it wasn't quite as dramatic, but the Huskies returned the favor from their turf this afternoon, the 67-59 loss marking an anticlimactic end to the Bruins' regular season. While they never held a lead in this one, the Bruins were well within striking distance for much of the contest, thanks in part to their ability to pick apart Washington's zone defense with quick passes into the paint for easy baskets (15 of UCLA's 21 made field goals came off of assists). But with just under three minutes left in the game, the Huskies went on a 10-3 spurt to expand their lead, and the Bruins just couldn't respond, settling for hurried jumpers instead of looking for the open player.
"Washington did a good job of keeping us outside of the lanes and forcing us to take jumpers," Close said. "We needed to get easier looks by either getting post touches inside or getting the ball to the basket off of dribble penetrations. That was the difference in the second half: We settled for jumpers when they were in their zone defense, and we didn't convert."
With Colorado having defeated Oregon State 67-57, the Bruins (9-9) are unofficially the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, thanks to the tiebreaker that is their win earlier in the season against the Beavers (9-9). That means No. 5 UCLA will take on No. 12 Arizona Wednesday at the Galen Center, with tip-off at 2:15 p.m.
"At this point, we just have to get our minds right and get our legs back underneath us," Close said. "We see upsets happen all the time, so whether it's Arizona or whether it's us, it's going to come down to who can dig in and take advantage of their opportunities more."
Maybe it was the aura of the pre-game circumstances that made all the difference on this special day.
Playing in their last home game of the season, the Bruins made sure to make this one count, giving the fans much to cheer about with a 72-58 win over Arizona to complete the sweep of the season series.
To be sure, it was an emotional atmosphere at the John Wooden Center, what with the Bruins honoring former NC State women's basketball coach Kay Yow by adorning pink breast cancer awareness accessories and celebrating the career of Rebekah Gardner, who played in her last Bruin home game. The headlines of today's results are as follows:
Winning with the Bigs
It was all but etched in stone that the Wildcats were going to go guard-heavy to try to win this game. Of the Arizona players who suited up, Erica Barnes was the only 6-footer who saw more than five minutes of action on the floor. Granted, the Bruins didn't have too many options inside, either; Corinne Costa was sidelined with a knee injury, while Markel Walker played just 22 minutes for disciplinary reasons. But it was Kacy Swain who filled the void, providing some steady offense with 14 points on an efficient 6-of-12 shooting. And it wasn't just her signature turnaround fadeaway jumpers; the freshman forward made a concerted effort to crash the glass, collecting seven rebounds and scoring on put-backs as well.
"My coaches told me before the game that because we were going to be missing some of our main players, I was going to have to really step up today for us to come out with a win," Swain said. "And because it was Rebekah's last home game, I wasn't going to have her go out with a loss. I wanted to do everything that I could to get this win."
If performance was indeed the way to pay homage to the sole Bruin senior, then Rhema Gardner did her sisterly deeds manning the post. Although her shooting wasn't pretty (0-for-7 from the floor), she raked in 12 rebounds, using her long and athletic frame to sky for the 50-50 balls and securing said boards against a swarm of Wildcats hoping to reach in for the held-ball calls. Oh, and it didn't hurt that Walker had her usual all-around game, albeit in limited minutes: 17 points, 12 rebounds, and two assists.
Rugged Officiating, Testy Moments, and a Lively Crowd
After a relatively calm and entertaining first half, the game turned noticeably testy, but this time not amongst the players. The officiating was quite frankly a bit erratic in the second period, to the annoyance of the fans in attendance. On plays where contact was drawn, the whistles at times went silent. Then in other spurts, the game suddenly became one of ticky-tack calls, a clear source of frustration for the Bruins who were looking to make a run and pull away in the second half.
"The referees started to call the game tight, so we just had to keep our composure," Rebekah Gardner said.
At one point, an official even charged Bruin head coach Cori Close with a technical foul, the cue for the boo birds to rain down on the striped ones.
"Our crowd sensed when we needed them today," Close said. "They even had my back when I got the technical foul, and I thought our team did a great job of feeding off of that energy. The reality is, the home-court crowd is a big deal in basketball. That sense of connection can be a powerful thing, and I thought the energy from our fans was the best today."
'Bek's Last Outing
Before the game, Rebekah Gardner was given a much-deserved tribute with her last home game upon her, complete with a video-board message from teammates and the coaching staff, a bouquet of flowers, and a standing ovation from the Bruin faithful. During the game, Gardner simply shined, whether it was draining jump shots (3-for-3 from beyond the arc) or attacking the basket. She finished the day with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting, six rebounds, and five assists.
After the game, Gardner reflected back on her four years at UCLA, noting how much has changed from her freshman season to now.
"I've definitely come a long way," she said. "When I first came here as a freshman, everything was so big and I didn't know anything. It's crazy how things have changed. This year, Coach Close has given me so many opportunities, and I'm just very thankful for that. I've learned so much over my four years here, from each coaching staff."
It would be an understatement to say there was more to the story than the scoreboard on this Thursday night.
While a final score of 53-38 in favor of UCLA might conjure up thoughts of a pristine, dominant performance by the Bruins against Arizona State, it was hardly easy. Truth be told, the product on the floor was often groggy and grimy, with UCLA down 20-8 midway through the first half. But to their credit, the Bruins mustered just enough down the stretch, taking advantage of the Sun Devils' lackluster shooting to seal the victory. The post-game takeaways are below:
'Bows and Whistles
The tension was unmistakable. For stretches in the game, it essentially became a matter of which team would be first to cede to the physicality. Rebekah Gardner was often at the center of the near-altercations, the elbows and tugs explicit enough to draw the ire of the officials. And if it wasn't the senior guard, younger sister Rhema Gardner had to deal with a fair load of the tussling, what with ASU constantly looking to score their points from the paint.
"I never want us to lose our focus out there, but I loved how Rebekah and Rhema played feisty," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "I loved that they said, 'Hey, I have your back' and played with that spirit. They weren't going to let anyone cross us."
Considering the Sun Devils' preference to dump the ball into the post and Rebekah Gardner's tendency to attack the basket, the chippy play was to be expected. After all, much of the extracurricular activity stemmed from both teams going after putbacks and defensive rebounds.
"Arizona State is probably the most physical team in our conference, and they're known for that," Close said. "Credit ASU; they made Rebekah work so hard for every catch, but the key was that Rebekah was able to get Arizona State's Alex Earl in early foul trouble."
Sun Devils Cold in the Clutch
As mentioned above, Close noted that the key moment was when Earl, arguably the Sun Devils' most reliant shooter, picked up her fourth foul with 12:07 left in the game and took a seat on the bench. That, in turn, enabled the Bruins to heighten the defensive pressure against Arizona State's bigs, and the Sun Devil guards just couldn't buy a basket. The result? Forced entry passes into the post, with the Bruins taking advantage. In the last 15 minutes of the game, ASU's inability to score allowed UCLA to go on a 24-7 run and essentially ice the game. By game's end, the Sun Devils shot just 2-for-14 from beyond the arc.
"We noticed that they weren't looking to take the outside shots, so we really just emphasized packing our defense into the paint," Rhema Gardner said.
Playing without Costa
Given Arizona State's post-centered game plan, the size and length of Corinne Costa figured to play a major factor coming into this one. But the sophomore center wound up playing just three minutes after going down with a leg sprain early in the first half. Close later acknowledged that she was given the clearance to play Costa in the second period, but decided not to take any chances. Had Costa been at full strength, ASU's post players likely wouldn't have been such an influence, especially in the first half.
But be that as it may, UCLA again got solid minutes from Rhema Gardner, who scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field to go along with nine rebounds and a pair of steals.
The results really weren't in question for this one.
Coming on the heels of two losses in the Bay Area and in need of a win to keep themselves in contention for the top seeds in the Pac-12 standings, the Bruins were outplayed from the start Sunday afternoon, resulting in a 66-54 loss against the Women of Troy.
Once the third-place team in the conference, UCLA now falls to 7-7 and remains fifth in the Pac-12, a full game behind fourth-place USC (8-6). The takeaways from today's outing are below:
A Case of Deja Vu
The plan for the Bruins coming into today was to learn from their last matchup against USC (a grind-it-out one at that) and speed up the tempo of the game. But right from the opening tip, the pace was slow and slurred. After registering the first basket of the game on a layup by Rebekah Gardner at the 19:39 mark, the Bruins didn't score again until the 15:54 mark on a three-pointer from Markel Walker. What made it worse for UCLA was that the Trojans' offense looked crisper than in the previous cross-town contest. Midway through the first half, USC broke the game open with an 18-9 run, paving the way for the decisive win.
What surely must have frustrated the UCLA coaching staff was that despite the Trojan momentum, the Bruins have shown throughout the season that they were capable of a better showing, especially during a first half dotted with letdowns and lapses.
"It wasn't so much what USC did as it was what we didn't do," Gardner said after the game. "We have to be composed during pressure situations and take care of the ball. USC is a good defensive team, but it was on us to play better out there today."
The Difference from Down Low
As it turned out, the guard play took a backseat to what transpired in the post. For the most part, the Bruins and Trojans kept each other's guards in check. On the other hand, while UCLA corralled just eight points from their post players, USC's Cassie Harberts went to work in the paint and set the tone early for the home team, ending the day with a game-high 26 points and nine rebounds.
As for the rebounding, it was advantage Trojans. UCLA head coach Cori Close had made it clear prior to this game that defensive rebounding was what would enable the Bruins to play to their strength: getting out in transition and scoring quick baskets. For a second time, though, that just didn't happen. Overall, UCLA was out-rebounded 48-37, with a 33-24 margin in defensive boards.
"It's a credit to USC; they played with great focus, and their hustle for loose balls and rebounds gave them second and third opportunities, especially in that first half," Close said.
News & Notes
Gardner had to come out of the game with 18:49 remaining in the second half after being on the receiving end of an inadvertent elbow from Brianna Gilbreath. Gardner later returned to the floor, but not after getting four stitches on her lip.
Fans might have also noticed Madeline Brooks getting the surprise start today, which Close explained was purely because of the freshman walk-on's efforts during practice.
As for next week, the Bruins play their last two home games of the regular season, hosting Arizona State on Thursday and Arizona on Saturday.
Never mind the school spirit that says it's time to return the favor against the Women of Troy.
It seemed like it was just yesterday when the UCLA women's basketball team debuted its throwback jerseys in an exhibition tiff against Vanguard. But alas, the season is slowly winding down to an end, and if the Bruins want to put themselves in the best possible position for the Pac-12 tournament, they'll have to take out USC tomorrow at noon at the Galen Center.
Of course, the last time these two teams met, USC came away victorious after 40 minutes of a rugged, drawn-out game. So it stands to reason something will have to change for the Bruins tomorrow. For starters, look for UCLA to speed the game up, as opposed to the low-scoring 47-43 affair back on Jan. 14.
"The reality is, we spent way too much time in our last game playing defense and giving USC those second opportunities," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "It'll be so key on so many levels for us to control the defensive boards, not only because we don't want to give them those second-chance looks, but also because we need that so that we can play uptempo and play our best offensive game."
Not just that, but the Bruins will also need their scorers to live up to their roles. After his team secured the win at the John Wooden Center, USC coach Michael Cooper made no secret of the fact that his strategy was to shut down the trio of Rebekah Gardner, Markel Walker, and Thea Lemberger. While Gardner still managed to put up 20 points, Walker and Lemberger combined for just nine points on quiet shooting nights. Quicken the pace of the game, and the Bruins up their chances.
As for defense, the key will be to limit USC's Ashley Corral. In the previous matchup, the senior guard didn't have much to show for in the scoring department (10 points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field), but she found other ways to help her team, chipping in with eight rebounds and, more importantly, eight assists with just one turnover.
"It won't be a matter of which individual person is going to be matched up with Ashley Corral, it'll be about our team philosophy to keep her in check," Close said. "We need to keep her in front of us and not have her get into the teeth of our defense, because not only is she really good at drawing fouls and creating pull-up jumpers for herself, but also at finding teammates for easy looks."
Also on the Bruins' radar? USC's Ariya Cook, who went off for 21 points off the bench to help defeat Cal in the Trojans' last game. Incidentally, the freshman guard scored 11 of those points in the last two minutes of overtime, emerging as yet another offensive weapon for USC.
"Obviously, Cook was the difference-maker at Cal and has been coming on strong lately, so that adds a different dimension because she's a different kind of player from Corral," Close said. "One of our keys will be to basically shut down that position, and that's going to take tremendous focus on our part because they are so different."
How this Pac-12 season ends is anyone's guess, what with UCLA and USC tied for fourth at 7-6 in the conference, and Arizona State and Oregon State tied for third at 8-6. But with a win tomorrow in Trojan territory, the Bruins will certainly place themselves in good position in what will likely continue to be a crowded race to the finish.
By all means, this was a precarious week for the Bruins.
Heading into Thursday's contest against Cal, UCLA had sole possession of third place in the Pac-12 standings with a 7-4 conference record, one game behind the Golden Bears but also just one game in front of a trio of teams - Arizona State, Oregon State, and USC - tied for fourth.
Well, after today's results, the West just got that much wilder. After losing 67-58 to Cal on Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, the Bruins actually kept up with Stanford for the first half on Sunday before the Cardinal used a strong second-half performance to clinch an 82-59 win at Maples Pavilion. The commentaries from both games are below:
Against the Bears
This marked the Bruins' first rematch week against their confrerence opponents, and in a way, Thursday mirrored the previous UCLA-Cal matchup in terms of the margin of the score. The difference, though, in a game that had five ties and six lead changes? Reshanda Gray, who paced the Bears with 17 points and 14 rebounds. The freshman forward and Los Angeles native was just too much for the Bruins in the second half, scoring 13 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in the final period.
It also didn't help that Corinne Costa was in foul trouble for much of this game. Costa, who dominated the previous game against Cal with a school-record seven blocks, played just 17 minutes, and it was clear the Bruins missed her size and length in the interior (see: Reshandra Gray).
Against the Cardinal
With a Thursday loss already spoiling the road trip, could the Bruins possibly pull off a shocker, going up against a Cardinal team with an unblemished 12-0 conference record? UCLA certainly stuck it to Stanford in the first half - the Bruins grabbed the 26-23 lead with 5:21 left in the period on two made free throws by Thea Lemberger - and even had their moments in the second period. But in the end, the Cardinal unleashed the wrath of the Ogwumikes. Nnemkadi Ogwumike scored 14 of her game-high 25 points in the second half, while younger sister Chiney Ogwumike registered 15 of her 19 in the final frame, often overwhelming an undersized Bruin frontcourt.
Rebekah Gardner came on late for UCLA after being held to just four points in the first period, but it was a matter of too little too late, as the Cardinal outscored the Bruins 49-27 in the second half to run away with the win.
"In the second half, we lost some of our focus, and Stanford was getting back-door cuts against us," said Gardner, who reached the 1,000 career-points scoring mark with 15 for the game. "In the second half, we weren't able to get out in transition as much as we were in the first half."
If there was a silver lining to be gleaned for the Bruins from today's game, it was the play of Rhema Gardner, who has steadily emerged as a defensive stalwart. Although she eventually fouled out of the game, the sophomore forward held her own in the post, not backing down against the Ogwumike sisters and hinting at an enforcer-type mentality.
"Rhema's intensity has increased throughout the season," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "She's been going much more aggressively for rebounds, she understands the game plans, and she's been doing this against really good players. The biggest thing for us is, 'How do we link all the pieces together? How can we use what we know about Rhema now that maybe we didn't know about her in November and make her a better player?' We've had a lot of individual steps of improvement. Now, we have to piece it all together and make those steps of improvement as a group."
As the gang proved today, wins don't necessarily have to come at the expense of bitten nails and sweaty palms.
After emerging victors of their past three games via the down-to-the-wire route, the Bruins continued on their roll, this time blowing past Washington State 73-52 at the John Wooden Center. Markel Walker decorated the court in this one, recording the first Bruin triple double in eight years with 14 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists. Then there was Rebekah Gardner, who led all scorers with 21 points on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting. The usual post-game ramblings and musings are below:
A 'W' Clinched in the Second Half
After the game, UCLA head coach Cori Close noted a particularly-telling facet of the game that would make any coach beam with pride.
"More than anything else, I'm proud of our mental growth," Close said. "This was the first game where we finally put the pedal to the metal and kept going in the second half instead of becoming complacent and having lapses in focus. We played for each other and with each other at a higher level today than I've seen up to this point."
The Bruins clearly distanced themselves in that second period, outscoring the Cougars 44-24 in the 20-minute stretch. Credit the results to quicker rotations on defense and more ball movement on offense. The Bruins stymied their opponents to just 21.6% shooting in the second half, all the while repeatedly finding the easy baskets inside (26 of their 38 points from the paint came from the second period).
"The biggest thing was our movement away from the basketball on defense," Close said. "We were late on our closeouts in the first half, but I thought we were much quicker and communicated more in the second half. On offense, we were allowing Washington State's zone defense to push us so far away from the basket, but we adjusted and made a concerted effort to move the ball off the pass and move without the ball."
An All-Around Effort
Sure, the box score shows that every Bruin scored a basket. But even without the stats sheet, the team just looked fluid and invested, particularly again in the second half. The ladies scrapped and heaved for the boards (a 50-28 rebounding margin in favor of the Bruins), made the precision cuts into the lane (22 assists), and often found the open shooters (51.8% shooting for the game).
"Everybody was open," Walker succinctly said. "It took us a while to notice and understand that we were open, but once we knew it and recognized it, we started moving without even running a play and things started getting easier."
Walker, of course, was an epitome of it all. The junior forward played especially well with Rebekah Gardner, constantly finding the cutting senior guard for the easy layups. The last piece to her triple-double, however, was something of a poetic, full-circle play. Dribbling the ball at the top of the key and drawing all kinds of attention from the Cougars' defense, she swung the ball to a wide-open Madeline Brooks, who promptly swished the basket to give Walker her 10th assist.
Rhema Gardner and Corinne Costa have been playing well as of late
It almost feels guilty to mention this now, but Costa and the younger Gardner continue to develop as key contributors to the team, and today was simply a culmination. In addition to playing gritty defense, Gardner (8 points and 7 rebounds) displayed her offensive skills as well, even creating her own shot by taking the ball to the basket from the post for the nifty reverse layup at the 14:20 mark of the second half.
"Rhema had the best game of her career today," Close said. "She caught some really tough passes, and not only did she catch them, she converted the baskets with great concentration. And on the other side of the floor, it was her deflections; it was the tips by Rhema that led to Markel getting the loose balls and the assists on the fastbreak. She was really engaged and was a huge sparkplug for us off the bench."
As for Costa, the sophomore center also proved her worth from both ends of the floor. Having shown a knack for knocking down the baseline mid-range jumpers, Costa scored with her back to the basket as well, tossing in the hooks with a noticeably softer touch than earlier this season. She ended the day with eight points (4-of-5 shooting), eight rebounds, two blocks, and two steals.
"The difference between this game and previous games for Corinne was that she got deeper touches today," Close said. "She's been getting so much deeper on her touches that she's able to score with those hook shots. I'm really proud of how much she's grown; I remember when I first got this job, she didn't believe she could play at this level, so it's been amazing to watch her discover that she really is a talented young woman."
Talk about snatching one from the jaws of defeat. The Bruins (or is it Comeback Kids?) did just that, though perhaps to the most extreme and numbing degree Thursday night.
What took place on the hardwood floor of Collins Court on this occasion was so improbable that when it became reality, the UCLA alumni were literally dancing from the stands, lost in the euphoria of a complete and breath-taking stunner.
"I was telling assistant coach Shannon Perry that I'm seeing way more gray hairs than I've ever seen before," UCLA head coach Cori Close deadpanned after the game.
Down 63-56 to Washington with only 49 seconds left in regulation and looking like goners, the Bruins scrapped and gutted their way back, carving out a 79-73 can-you-believe-it victory in overtime against the Huskies. The takeaways from the wily turn of events are as follows:
Clutch (Again) Down the Stretch
After pulling off two come-from-behind wins on the road last week, the Bruins went for the hat trick with possibly the most impressive one of the three. And yet again, it was the uncanny ability to convert the critical plays with the clock ticking down.
Smack in the middle of it all were Rebekah Gardner and Mariah Williams. With her team down 65-62 at the 18-second mark of regulation, it was Gardner who got the steal off of a turnover by the Huskies' Jazmine Davis and took it all the way for the breakaway layup to make it a one-point game. The senior guard then attacked the basket again, slicing her way into the paint for another bucket with just two seconds left to essentially force overtime.
Enter Williams: Already, the junior guard had banked in a runner at the 2:40 mark of overtime for the 71-68 lead. Then, she went on to hit arguably the biggest shot of the night, nailing her third three-pointer with the shot clock expiring with 1:43 remaining to extend UCLA's lead to 74-68.
"I think that shot is actually the easiest, because everyone in the gym knows that the shot clock is running down," Williams said. "Whether it goes in or not, you just have to get that shot up really fast, though it's always exciting when the shot goes in."
All in all, Williams (11 points on 4-of-4 shooting) and Gardner (17) were just two of five Bruins scoring in double figures.
The full-court press proves deadly yet again
It's no coincidence that in each contest from their now three-game winning streak, the Bruins went to the press defense in the waning minutes to fuel each comeback. Indeed, it was because of the swarming, smothering defense applied by Williams and Markel Walker that Davis turned the ball over with 14 seconds left in regulation.
The Bruins actually showed press in spurts earlier in the game, but with less admirable results. Come crunch time, though, they were on-point.
"It's high risk, high rewards," Close said. "Toward the end of the game, we had to go to the full-court press; we had nothing to lose and there was no choice, so we had to go high risk. I'd like to see us get more into that situation where on dead balls and free throws, we're speeding people up and getting them out of rhythm."
These Bruins are learning and growing
Make no mistake, these wins hold significant weight where the Pac-12 race is concerned; UCLA is now tied for third place in the conference standings with USC at 6-4 (the Bruins are 11-10 overall).
But what Close will undoubtedly agree is going to pay dividends in the long run is the growth that is to be gleaned from the last three victories. Simply put, it's a matter of the Bruins proving to themselves that they have what it takes to win, even under, again, improbable circumstances. In the context of Thursday night, UCLA notched the win, despite being down by seven with less than a minute remaining in the game, and despite Washington's Regina Rogers going off for 21 points and 12 rebounds.
"These players are showing that they have something inside of them," Close said. "When their backs are against the wall, they come out swinging, and that says a lot for who they are. It is the only way we can win; it's that grit coming out that says, 'I will do whatever it takes - as unconventional as it might be - to figure it out and come out swinging.' And as a coach, I couldn't be any more proud of that."
Say what you will about the inconsistencies displayed at times on the floor, or the woeful injuries that have hit the team, but even the casual fan had to revel in the fortitude the Bruins channeled this week, staging a pair of rallies to remember in their two come-from-behind wins on the road against Utah and Colorado.
On both occasions, the Bruins faced seemingly-insurmountable deficits well into the second half, clearly gassed from playing at unfamiliar altitudes. But on both occasions, the ladies played some of their most relentless basketball of the season and eked out their first two-win week, first defeating the Utes 65-60 before downing the Buffaloes 62-54 in overtime. The takeaways from both games are as follows:
Against the Utes
Like an eighth-inning relief pitcher preserving a baseball game for the closer, it was Mariah Wiliams of all players who kept the Bruins in Thursday's game and made the comeback win possible. Williams, who averages 4.8 points per game, exploded onto the scene in Salt Lake City, punishing the Utes with a career-high 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. It wasn't just jumpers, either; on numerous possessions, Williams took her defender off the dribble and promptly matched leather to net.
"It just comes down to having confidence, and I got it from my teammates and the coaching staff," Williams said on Thursday.
If Williams was one half of the story, the Bruins' clutch defense was the other. Down 55-46 with 5:48 left in the game, UCLA went with a full court press during that last five-minute stretch, a gutsy call considering the clear signs of fatigue. To say the least, the press paid dividends; Utah simply ceased to function as an offense, as the Bruins got three key steals in that span and staged a dominating 19-5 run to complete the rally.
"That was one of the things we learned from the game: Despite our low numbers in players, we can switch to the press and really disrupt a team's offense," Williams said. "To be a part of that was really fun."
Against the Buff's
If Thursday night was a challenge, the circumstances in Boulder just screamed for a Bruin loss: Colorado's Chucky Jeffery started to get hot from the field in the second half; Corinne Costa fouled out of the game with 2:07 left in regulation; the officials began to nitpick on the traveling calls down the stretch. And to top it all off, UCLA simply looked in danger of losing the game to bouts with stamina - and that was before overtime.
But again, much like their performance three days ago, the Bruins - heavy breathing and all - clamped down on defense in the critical moments, causing the Buffaloes' offense to vanish into the thin Colorado air.
And this time, it was a blend of both zone and press defense that got the job done for the blue and gold.
"The zone helped especially with guarding Chucky, because she likes to drive or get to the lanes and kick the ball out to the shooters," said Rebekah Gardner, who notched 17 points. "With the zone, she couldn't go one-on-one as much as she usually does."
As for the killer press that finished off the Buff's?
"The full-court press basically picked up the play and took Chucky and their other playmakers out of their game," said Markel Walker, who had a stellar game with 24 points and 10 rebounds.
One factor that may not have been as noticeable was the usage of timeouts. Certainly, with their first overtime game of the season, the Bruins faced a test of will and stamina. As such, it was critical for UCLA that the timeouts were used strategically and at key junctures.
"Coach Cori Close's strategy of when to use the timeouts helped us a lot because it gave us the breaks when we needed them most," Gardner said. "It also helped that it was a TV game, because the media timeouts were longer."
With two impressive wins now in the books, the Bruins return home, a much-deserving sigh of relief in order.
If these Ducks actually played with wings, they would've left quite a feather-storm today at the John Wooden Center.
After handling Oregon State on Thursday, UCLA was simply swept off the floor against Oregon, the frenetic, quick-footed Ducks defeating the Bruins 83-62. Some musings from the game:
The Ducks can score, and can score quickly
Truthfully, Oregon's offense proved to be too much from the get-go. By the end of the first half, the Ducks were on pace to score in the 100's, taking a 52-23 lead into halftime. Too often, Oregon would get a shot off just about 10 seconds into the shot clock, with the Bruins still pedaling into their defensive positions. If it wasn't Jasmin Holliday (21 points) and Danielle Love (16) draining quick jumpers from the perimeter, Oregon had Liz Brenner (15) muscling her way in the post.
"We allowed it to be a blitz," coach Cori Close said. "We sent three people to the ball and reached, or we let them get offensive rebounds so that we had to play defense for 70-80 seconds. As fast as they were, we knew we had to play transition defense and out-rebound them. The reality is that we didn't play the way we needed to, which fed exactly into the way Oregon wanted to play."
A Perimeter-Oriented Game
Save the efforts of Brenner, this was a contest mostly powered from the perimeter. And it was only natural, as both teams relied heavily on zone defense. The difference, however, was that when UCLA went zone, the Ducks - as active and mobile as they were - would find the open shooter (10-for-27 from beyond the arc), but when Oregon showed zone, the Bruins struggled to find a decent look at the basket, often using all of the shot clock to get a shot off.
And even when the Ducks misfired, they chased down the offensive rebounds for second-chance opportunities. Overall, the Ducks scored 27 second-chance points, in addition to 20 points off of turnovers.
Extended Minutes for Brooks
Chalk it to the need for breathers against Oregon's high-octane, fast-paced offense, the advantages that come with having a shooter on the floor, or simply a coach's whim, but this was the first game in which freshman walk-on Madeline Brooks played extended minutes. And she wasn't too shabby, either. Defensively, Brooks held her own, staying in front of her player and making the necessary rotations. That, and she scored her first career three-pointer, a spot-up trey off of an assist from Rebekah Gardner, who had a game-high 22 points.
"I'm thankful for Madeline; she's the first one in the gym and she gets here two hours before the game so she can get extra shots up when no one else is here," Close said. "She may not have the tools as some of our other players, but she's maximizing what she can contribute for her team. The fact of the matter is, she earned her minutes."
One other item of news to note: Kacy Swain went down in a heap in the second half after being hit in the head, and her status is a day-to-day situation.
She may not don a bizarre mask or have a spandex costume secretly stashed away in a beaten-up trash bin near you, but Markel Walker was something of a heroine tonight, catalyzing the Bruins to a 69-60 win over the Oregon State Beavers at the John Wooden Center.
It was an overall satisfactory night for a Bruin team that has increasingly shown throughout the course of the season that its strength is its transition game. At times, the pace of the game sputtered, but UCLA got off to the races when needed, thanks in large part to Walker's efforts. Here are some quick post-game pointers:
Back on Boards
After being out-rebounded by USC 48-40 this past Saturday, UCLA did a thorough job of dominating the glass against Oregon State, owning a 47-31 advantage on the boards. Coach Cori Close has been adamant that it is the hunger for gobbling up rebounds that will drive this team, and tonight was a stellar showing in that regards.
"I want this team to feel how much more fun it is to get out in transition, but you have to scratch and claw on the defensive boards in order to have those opportunities," Close said. "I want us to continue to fight for those rebounds because it feeds into the way we play best, especially when we're playing with a four-guard lineup."
Walker was undoubtedly the best at putting said theory to use. Whether it was seizing second-chance opportunities or reeling in missed Oregon State shots, the third-year guard/forward did her best to channel her inner Kevin Love, amassing a total of 18 rebounds by game's end. And speaking of which...
Moves Like Walker
The honest truth is that no pop song has yet to be named after her, but the coaching staff had to have been beaming (maybe slightly grooving discreetly) to Walker's all-around performance tonight. She may not have been the most efficient shooting (5-for-15 from the field) and did have some slip-ups (five turnovers), but it was the timeliness of her play that largely dictated the results.
Besides the rebounding, Walker got on a roll in the assists department, heaving outlet passes left and right. The highlight came with 11:40 left in the game, when Walker snared a defensive rebound and promptly hurled the ball the full length of the court to a breaking Rebekah Gardner for the easy layup.
"I like playing with her, because she finds me," Gardner casually admitted with a smile, before pausing. "She finds all of us actually, so it's fun playing with Markel."
There were also multiple possessions where Walker played out of the post. And while playing from that position isn't exactly her first preference, she did show flashes of effectiveness with her back to the basket.
"Playing from the post lets me see the court," Walker said. "Instead of facing up and facing the defender, I can see everything, so I can make the skip pass, the pass in front of me, or attack the basket."
Walker simply was the do-it-all cog to the Bruins' victory, finishing the game one assist shy of a triple double with 16 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, and a block.
A Pretty Transition Game
It bears no repeating, but the Bruins were just too much for the Beavers whenever they got out on the run. And it wasn't just Walker, Gardner (19 points), and Thea Lemberger (9), either. Mariah Williams, Rhema Gardner, and Corinne Costa all contributed, scoring key baskets in transition as well. It was, to put it shortly, a brand of basketball that Close called "pretty."
"As a coach, you think about how many fastbreaks happen with one dribble or none at all," Close said. "When we can use our legs to create angles and hit passes without having to put the ball on the ground, that's really pretty, and it shows a lot of growth in our teamwork."
It might just take a
play on words for the Bruins to put last week's loss to USC behind them.
Scratch that - ask coach
Cori Close, and it's a certainty that the only way her team can rebound this
week is to, well, rebound.
"We have to
rebound, that's the bottom line," Close said. "This team is best when
we can use our versatility and attack before the defense sets its rotations,
but we can't do that until we get rebounds and secure that end of the
As far as rivalry games go, it wasn't exactly the most glamorous of contests.
In the first UCLA-USC get-together of the season, it was more clanked shots and hands in faces than swished jumpers and swift ball movement. And while it was a far cry from an offensive showcase, it was the Trojans who converted and got the key buckets down the stretch, slipping by the Bruins 47-43 at the John Wooden Center. The takeaways from the game:
SC's Defensive Scheme
After the game, USC coach Michael Cooper made it known that the collective plan was to shut down the Bruins' top three scorers in Thea Lemberger, Markel Walker, and Rebekah Gardner. Clearly, Cooper and his team made their mark, the trio shooting a collective 10-for-40 from the field.
"We shut down the players that we wanted to," Cooper said. "Rebekah was the only one that got away, but Markel and Thea were two of the ones we knew we had to at least keep below their averages."
While Gardner was able to find her way to the basket with a game-high 20 points, not having those other offensive options hurt the Bruins in the waning minutes of the game when victory was still within reach.
Battle of the Guards
Defense is a specialty for Mariah Williams, and she drew a challenging assignment in having to go up against Ashley Corral, USC's all-time 3-point leader. The Trojans' senior guard ended the day shooting just 3-of-12, but did some damage with eight assists.
"I enjoy guarding her," Williams said. "It was tough when they started doing the high-ball screens; she did a really good job of going shoulder to shoulder with her screener and made some things happen as a result."
Williams herself was a pleasant surprise for the Bruins on the offensive end, all eight of her points coming on jumpers. In fact, the junior guard scored the Bruins' first six points of the game on three consecutive jump shots, and would score another one late in the second half.
"Mariah played really steady and did a great job for us today," Close said. "The reality is that they were playing off of her, so we wanted to set a set play, knowing they were double-teaming off of her."
The Two-Minute Stretch
Heading into the final timeout of the game at the 2:27 mark, the Bruins were still only down 43-40 and got as close as 44-43 after Williams sunk her fourth jumper with 23 seconds left. But even taking into consideration a not-so-stellar offense from either team, it was the Bruins' struggle with getting second-chance looks that eventually decided the outcome.
"USC played really good defense and tried to make us play to our weaknesses, and we did the same to them," Close said. "The difference was, when they played to their weakness and missed a shot, they went and got another one, and we weren't able to. Both teams forced the first shot they wanted to force, and so it really came down to the focus on rebounding."
The odds continue to
stack up for the UCLA women's basketball team in what's surely been an
increasingly trying season, and yet, the Bruins keep on fighting.
What a conference-opening week it was for UCLA women's basketball: a win and a loss to show for the Bruins' first meetings with two teams projected to be in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 in Cal and Stanford.
But it's bags packed and on to the next one for UCLA, who will be facing host Arizona at 6 p.m. tonight at the McKale Center before taking on Arizona State on Saturday. A quick roundup of the week that was and the week to come for the blue and gold:
Swinging the Ball
As the game against Stanford indicated, ball movement is an essential must for the Bruins. For most of the possessions in the second half, the offense seemed stagnant, though that will happen more times than not against a disciplined and experienced Cardinal team. And given the shortage of players, the scoring will have to be generated more through fundamental plays than one-on-one isolations.
"The reality of the situation is that we don't have a surplus of firepower weapons to take over the game," coach Cori Close said. "It's really important that we use each other to get easier shots."
The Emergence of Lemberger
After having a career night against Cal and showing just what she's capable of, Thea Lemberger had a quiet follow-up against Stanford. But the importance of the sophomore guard to this team hasn't been lost on Close.
"Thea is one of the most efficient players on our team and ends up being one of our best defenders, meaning she anticipates well and stays in her defensive stance," Close said. "I'm a big believer of needing your best players and your point guards to be the hardest workers, and I'm hardest on Thea about that. I hold her to the highest standard, and she wants to become an elite-level point guard.
"Honestly, I think she's the most-improved guard in the conference as I've watched film, but I'm not holding her to the most-improved-guard standard, I'm holding her to the standard of who she wants to become."
The leaps have certainly been many for Lemberger, who averaged just 7.7 minutes in 14 games as a freshman last season, and it'll be interesting to see how her game evolves by season's end. As of now, tab Lemberger as the proverbial X-factor of a young group.
A Peek at the Wildcats
Arizona hasn't looked too shabby thus far this season, having compiled an 11-2 overall record, and will be motored by its guard play. The Wildcats have three guards in Davellyn White (18.9 points per game), Candice Warthen (16.8 ppg), and Shanita Arnold (8.9 ppg, 5.1 assists per game) who generate a brunt of the offense and will be looking to push the ball.
"It'll be a battle of styles; Arizona is a good team that wants to have quick shots and lots of possessions, and we want to have a teamwork game," Close said.
One other note: This marks a homecoming week for freshman guard Moriah Faulk, who hails from Phoenix. It's a situation that Close hinted could play a significant hand in how the Bruins fare.
"Moriah knows a lot of those players, and sometimes the homecoming brings out the best in players,and other times, they play too big or press too hard," Close said. "I know she'll be focused, so my hope is that she'll make some marked improvement this week."
On the heels of a momentous win against Cal on Thursday, could the Bruins somehow pull off a Cinderella performance against fourth-ranked Stanford and possibly trigger a basketball hysteria in Westwood?
Credit UCLA for making things interesting for much of the first half, but Stanford inevitably played like the powerhouse team that it is, soundly defeating the Bruins 77-50 at Collins Court. The themes of the game are as follows:
A Tale of Two Halves, in One Half
For the opening minutes of the first half, it looked as if the Bruins would continue with the momentum built from Thursday's victory; they took a 16-15 lead on Moriah Faulk's and-one bank shot in the lane at the 10:11 mark, and trailed 23-20 with 7:02 left in the first period. But like an incoming storm, the Cardinal made its eventual run, scoring in a flurry both from the perimeter and the paint to seize a 40-23 lead heading into halftime.
"We had to come out and pressure them and make the game ugly because they are such a rhythm-oriented team, and I thought we did that for the first 10 minutes," coach Cori Close said. "We got them further away from the basket, they weren't making clean cuts, and they weren't getting the clean looks that make rhythm shooters shoot well. But then we backed off a little bit and weren't applying our purpose consistently, and Stanford got pretty. Before you knew it, we were down 20."
Stanford's Brand of Basketball
It didn't take much analysis to recognize that this was a barometer game for UCLA. As Close put it after the game, "Stanford is a team that has set a standard, and they teach the rest of us what it takes to be at that level, night in and night out."
The Cardinal sure looked like the prized, Pac-12 thoroughbred in this game, setting up its offense and making the defensive rotations deliberately and almost seamlessly. Chiney and Nnemkadi Ogwumike had their way in the post, the two sisters combining for 33 points, while Toni Kokenis provided a steady flow of baskets from the perimeter with 11 points.
"Obviously, Stanford is a big and long team, but more than their size and length, it was their purpose," Close said. "They're going to get to the point of their screens when they need to; they're going to switch when they need to; they're going to step out when they need to. It's their consistent sense of purpose, and that's where I'm telling our players, 'If you want to be at that level, that's the consistent purpose you have to play with.'"
Attacking the Basket
It didn't last throughout the game, but the Bruins were clearly at their best when they were driving to the hoop. In fact, it was a pair of back-to-back and-one plays (Faulk's was preceded by a tumbling layup drive by Markel Walker) that had UCLA up by one midway through the first half.
"Any time we can take our defenders off the dribble, we want to obviously do that," said Rebekah Gardner, who led the Bruins with 17 points. "Our jumpers weren't falling as much today, so going to the basket and drawing fouls was definitely a point of emphasis."
In the second half, fatigue seemed to have set in for UCLA (combined with Stanford's zone defense), and the drives became less frequent. It's something that Close said the team will be mindful of, a microcosm of the learning curve for a still-developing group.
"We have to think about strengths and weaknesses, and we thought our strength was our quickness against their guards," Close said. "When our guards are making a mindful attempt to go to the basket, we're playing to our strengths, and when Stanford is able to get touches for the Ogwumike sisters or wide-open threes, they're playing to their strengths. If we as a team can learn from that and recognize what plays into our hands, we are going to grow as a program. That in my mind is the most important thing."
Never mind the results for a moment - tonight's contest made one point perfectly clear: Never let it be said that a women's hoops game can't be entertaining.
It was UCLA versus Cal in a clash of interstate rivals at a packed Collins Court, and man alive did the two teams kick off the Pac-12 opener in style, in front of an announced crowd of 1,099 that was certainly buzzing throughout the entire game. Led by Thea Lemberger's career-best 26 points (more on her later), it was the Bruins who prevailed, 60-55, against an athletic Bears team. The takeaways from tonight's thriller:
The One-Two Punch
Simply put, Lemberger was on a roll tonight. Besides the fact that she shot an efficient 7-of-11 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-10 from the charity stripe, the sophomore guard seemed to have the game on a string, conducting her team toward easy scoring opportunities and keeping the Cal backcourt in check on defense. The icing on the cake came with the Bruins leading by just one with less than a minute remaining. Coming out of a timeout, Markel Walker got the ball to Lemberger, who promptly brought the house down with a corner three at the 0:44 mark to extend the lead to 84-80.
But if Lemberger made her imprints with much gusto, Walker did so more inconspicuously, quietly putting up 18 points and eight rebounds to go along with four steals. The junior forward bailed the Bruins out on numerous possessions, either draining spot-up jumpers or attacking the basket with the shot clock winding down.
"It's funny, Thea and Markel can sometimes argue like sisters because they're so alike," coach Cori Close said. "They're both very tough-minded. They express it differently, but they're very much the same in the way that their mindset is; they get very angry when they make a mistake because they hold themselves to a high standard. That's who they are, and that's who they have to be for this team."
A bizarre thing happened along the way in this game. Both Lemberger and Walker went out of the game multiple times, both because of cramps. And for a while, it appeared as if the Bruins would suffer yet another injury, but both players were on the floor by game's end.
The Stonewall Interior Defense
Forget the Bruin Bash, the Bruins staged one heck of a block party, courtesy of one Corinne Costa. The sophomore center might not be a phenom on the offensive end, but she had a defensive outing to remember, blocking a total of seven shots en route to breaking the school record for most blocks in a game (previously six, held by Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams). Costa was a nightmare for the Bears' post players, who either had to (more times than not) unsuccessfully alter their shots, or face some serious swattage.
"During practice, it was all about just keeping our hands up on defense," Costa said. "I used to block shots in high school and just hadn't been able to do it here, but I think the timing is coming together again."
Sharing the Rock, and Sharing it Effectively
One aspect to UCLA's victory that might go unnoticed was the precision that was the passing game. On paper, the Bruins only totaled 13 assists, but there was a crispness and fluidity to the ball movement, made even more evident when compared to the Bears' inability to connect on post-entry passes. Lemberger, Mariah Williams, and Rebekah Gardner all played a part, swinging the ball around until a clear shot was available or finding their bigs down low.
"We've watched a lot of film on us having stagnant offensive possessions, so we've been making it a point to start moving the ball and making cuts," Lemberger said. "Cal played good defense for most of the shot clock, but moving the ball around and finding each other led to good looks for us."
It's just about that
time of the year again, when the party hats make an appearance, corks fly, and
toasts are made.
Well this wasn't the outing the Bruins had in mind.
Coming into tonight's game against Louisiana State, the UCLA women's basketball team had plenty to feel bubbly about: the addition of a veteran presence in the return of Markel Walker; a rendezvous with former Bruin coach Nikki Caldwell and her coaching staff; and ultimately, a chance to build upon its last game, a 41-point victory against Loyola Marymount. But turnovers-galore was the tale of this game, and the Bruins just couldn't find their stride, falling 58-41 to the Tigers at the Pete Maravich Center.
UCLA has gone up against some Paul Bunyans already this season (see: Brittney Griner and the Baylor Bears, San Diego State), and tonight was no different. With a roster wielding eight 6-footers, LSU disrupted a usually-high-octane UCLA offense, denying entry passes into the post and forcing the Bruins into 24 turnovers (the Tigers actually had more miscues with 29 of their own).
"LSU played really high with its size. If you don't get the ball behind their zone, you're struggling with trying to get it through their zone," coach Cori Close said after the game. "We wanted to pull those forwards out high, get into the short corners, and attack from behind the zone defense, but we weren't able to get into that rhythm. Ball movement just didn't happen for us tonight."
LSU's LaSondra Barrett led all players with 18 points for the game. The Bruins had just one player scoring in double figures, and it was none other than Walker, who made her season debut after undergoing thumb surgery in the offseason. She may have started off slow, but Walker showed some signs of promise, scoring most of her 11 points on jumpers and grabbing six rebounds. And it's a point to be noted; if the junior forward can emerge as a third scoring threat besides Atonye Nyingifa and Rebekah Gardner, it figures to spread the floor and open up the Bruins' three-point game.
"A lot of teams know that I can drive to the basket and that I like to pass the ball, so I've been working on my jump shot and just gaining more confidence," Walker said.
Up next for the Bruins? Certainly some rigorous practice and film sessions, as No. 6 Tennessee rolls into Collins Court on Saturday.
For the first 15 minutes, this was quite a contest.
If it wasn't Hazel Ramirez flicking teardrops in the lane, Loyola Marymount had a variety of gunners draining three-pointers to give the UCLA women's basketball team a legitimate challenge.
But the result, once the Bruins kicked into high gear on defense? An 84-43 throttling of the Lions Sunday evening at Gersten Pavillion.
The offensive output might be eye-catching, but the Bruins seized control of this game with their play on the other end of the floor. By game's end, LMU shot just 25% from the floor with UCLA applying a defensive tenacity that led to a 24-6 margin in points off turnovers. The higlights from the game:
The Turning Point
When Ramirez knocked down a three-pointer at the 5:00 mark of the first half to give the Lions the 28-25 lead, it looked as if UCLA was in for a grind. But then the Bruins held their opponents scoreless during that last five-minute stretch and came up ahead 34-28 heading into halftime. Safe to say, it was the squeeze that had the Lions roaring no longer.
"We tried going to the zone defense because we knew we were only going to have eight players, but we had to go back to player-to-player defense in order to pursue the shooters," coach Cori Close said. "The bottom line is in the first half, we weren't playing with enough passion, but late in the first half and in the second half, we locked down and played posession defense the way we need to."
Set the Ton'-ye
At this point, it's almost easy to just glance over Atonye's Nyingifa's stat line in the box score. But once again, Nyingifa came through big for her team, posting a career-high 28 points on a blistering 10-of-12 shooting as well as 14 rebounds. When the perimeter game wasn't working for the Bruins, Nyingifa made sure there was still a steady scoring output, scoring on a variety of pump fakes, drives, and dish-and-pops from the paint.
"For the years that I've been at UCLA, the post coaches have always emphasized footwork and pump fakes, especially since I'm undersized," Nyingifa said. "It's vital for me to have the fundamentals down because I'm stepping into a new role, and my teammates depend on me."
A Balanced Team Effort
Given an active roster of just eight players coming into the game, UCLA had five different players scoring in double figures tonight. Nyingifa and Rebekah Gardner (11 points) provided the usual one-two punches, but it was three other players stepping up on the scoring duties, with Mariah Williams (13) driving to the hoop, Moriah Faulk (11) popping from behind the arc, and Thea Lemberger (15) driving and popping.
"We focused a lot on getting ball reversals and moving the ball this week during practice," Lemberger said. "We worked hard on letting everyone get touches and attacking the basket, so with that we were able to get open looks and knock them down."
Given the limited playing time, Madeline Brooks might not get too many open looks at the basket, but when she does, she evidently does it in style. The freshman walk-on scored the first basket of her collegiate career with 3:40 left in the game, a nothing-but-net splash from the right wing that drew an extended cheer from her teammates, as well as a standing ovation from a sizeable UCLA contingent on hand for the game. Safe to say, it was the proverbial icing on the cake for the Bruins.
"I'm really glad that the girls are trusting me on the court, since I've only been on the team for a couple of weeks," Brooks said. "I'm so blessed for the opportunity that Coach gave me by letting me on the team, so any chance I get, I'm going to make the most of it."
News & Notes
A few other items to note: Kacy Swain returned to action after missing the last two games with a concussion, but the Bruins suffered another hit when Rhema Gardner went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury at the 9:44 mark of the second half. But it was what Close called a "minor injury," and the younger Gardner figures to have ample time to recover. The Bruins don't play again until December 13 when they hit the road to take on former coach Nikki Caldwell and the LSU Tigers.
By no means was the feat easy. Reduced to seven players going up against 11, the UCLA women's basketball team put its fortitude to the test, countering brute and brawn with huffs and puffs in a high-octane 78-71 victory over San Diego State Wednesday night at Collins Court.
The Bruins may have led by as many as 16 points (thanks to a whopping 22-0 run in the first half), but the game went down to the wire. In the end, it was Rebekah Gardner and Atonye Nyingifa who steered the team to victory, and not surprisingly, logged in the most minutes on the floor. Gardner (39 minutes) made her mark with 20 points and eight rebounds, while Nyingifa (38 minutes) notched her fourth double-double of the year with a career-high 21 points to go along with 11 rebounds.
In the spirit of the final exam craze creeping through the campus, the cram notes for tonight's game are as follows:
Simply put, the Bruins can chalk this win to their ability to come through on the defensive end. The Aztecs jumped out to 6-0 lead to open the game, until of course the Bruins went on their 22-0 tear, one made possible by a series of steals and contested shots. And again, when San Diego State seemed to be the aggressor early in the second half, UCLA tightened the screws on defense.
"I give my assistant coaches a lot of credit. They suggested the adjustment with when we go to zone defense and when we go to player-to-player defense," coach Cori Close said. "And our players, they locked in mentally when we made those defensive shifts. They made the mental shifts with the assistant coaches, and that was the difference in the game."
The Size Disparity
It was quite clear the Aztecs had every intention of exploiting UCLA's shortage in players with their 11-player rotation, seven of whom fit under the "6-footer" category. Undoubtedly, SDSU's size advantage wore out the Bruins at periods in the game. But Mariah Williams may have summed it up best:
"I've been playing against players way bigger than me since I was two years old, so I'm used to it," the 5-foot-4 guard said. "But if you really want it more than the other team, height and size won't matter; there were a couple times when I was boxing out the biggest player out there. If you want it more, you go get it."
The Mariah Williams Effect
True to her words, Williams certainly wasn't shy about establishing a presence on the court. She may not exactly be billed as the Bruins' go-to scorer, but the junior guard made it a point to drive to the basket. She only shot 2-of-3 from the field, but drew plenty of contact, enough to go 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. Williams did have five turnovers, but certainly provided a needed spark with a season-high 11 points and four assists.
"After the West Virginia game, I re-evaluated how the season is going so far, and I think I can help this team by being more aggressive" Williams said. "The team depends on my defensive ability, but if I'm not a factor on the offensive end, it's pretty much 5-on-4 at that point, so me being aggressive on offense helps us a bit."
On a day when the head honchos of the NBA labor negotiations rebounded from months of failed talks to successfully rescue a season, the UCLA women's basketball team also did some bouncing back of its own, salvaging a two-game tilt in Northridge with a 68-48 victory against Colgate.
It wasn't quite the post-Thanksgiving plans the team had in mind, given a 63-54 loss to West Virginia in Friday's opener of the Holiday Inn Thanksgiving Basketball Classic. But save for a slow start, the Bruins didn't suffer from a lull in tonight's second game of a back-to-back set. Some takeaways from the win:
Rebekah Gardner, the Slasher
Call it an ongoing evolution if you will, but the elder Gardner sister repeatedly attacked the basket tonight, scoring on multiple layups as well as mid-range jumpers for a game-high 21 points to go along with 10 rebounds. It was much of the same story for Gardner on Friday when she netted 19 points.
Last season with the likes of guards Darxia Morris, Doreena Campbell, and forward Jasmine Dixon managing the primary scoring duties, Gardner was relegated as something of a long-ball specialist coming off the bench. But this year, she has clearly earned the license to drive, and it's certainly an encouraging sign for the Bruins.
"Last year, I was more of a shooter because we had Darxia and Doreena," Gardner said. "This year, it's just what the defense is giving me. If they give me a lane to drive, I'll drive. It's just a different feel this year."
As if the team weren't undermanned enough already, UCLA was without freshman forward Kacy Swain, who suffered a concussion in the first half on Friday. That left coach Cori Close to work with essentially a seven-player rotation, with all seven logging in 20-plus minutes on the floor.
"Fatigue was a factor, but it was all the better because it was another opportunity to learn to become tougher," Close said. "We got beat by West Virginia because we weren't tough enough, so what better way than to be down to seven players and have to play the next day and figure out, 'How do I dig in when I'm really tired?'"
Consequently, the bench generated just 11 and 7 points, respectively, in the past two games. The imminent return of junior Markel Walker from injury, however, should add that much more depth in the scoring department.
News & Notes
On the subject of injuries and bench production, Swain is currently day-to-day and questionable for Wednesday's contest against San Diego State.
Newcomer Madeline Brooks made her collegiate debut at the 3:30 mark of the second half in tonight's game. But to the light-hearted disappointment of radio color analyst Tracy Murray (himself known as a shooter during his playing days at UCLA and in the NBA) and Bruin fans, the freshman walk-on didn't have a chance to hoist up a jumper. The blue and gold tea leaves, though, indicate she'll have a trey notched to her name by the time conference play begins.
The holiday seasons have arrived, but for the UCLA women's basketball team, rest is only fleeting.
Coming on the heels of their first loss of the season last week against top-ranked Baylor, the Bruins march into Northridge on Friday, taking on West Virginia in the opening round of the Holiday Inn Thanksgiving Basketball Classic. But until then, some quick reflections are in order.
Bruises and Lessons from Texas
UCLA may have taken a beating against Baylor, but there was some insight gleaned in doing battle against the top-ranked team in the country. In fact, the Bruins did a stellar job of holding their ground early in the game, trailing 30-23 heading into halftime before Brittney Griner and the Bears pulled away in the second half.
"That first half showed me that they were starting to believe that they could accomplish what they needed to accomplish, together," coach Cori Close said of her players. "In the second half, we were put against the ropes, and we learned how important rebounding and guard play are. Everyone's going to talk about Griner, and she gave us exactly what we thought, but it was (sophomore guard) Odyssey Sims who dictated the rebounding and the game, on both ends of the floor."
What's at Stake in Northridge
Don't expect the Bruins to take these next two games in Northridge lightly. This season marks the first time that the RPI (or Ratings Percentage Index) formula for women's basketball is the same as the one used for men's hoops, meaning that more weight will be given to road wins than home wins in determining the seeding for the postseason. Suffice it to say, the Bruins will seize whatever opportunity they can to build upon their resume.
"Here we've got two local games that are technically road games, and if we can get two wins in Northridge, that would be big in the RPI," Close said. "On top of that, West Virginia is a perennial Sweet 16-level team with dominant post play, so I see this as a great opportunity for us."
On the Injury Front
Some reinforcement may soon be on its way for the Bruins. Junior forward Markel Walker, who had offseason thumb surgery, has made some progress and may be making her much-welcomed season debut mid-December.
As for freshman guard Alexis Perry, her recovery from a knee injury will likely have to wait a bit longer.
"Alexis is coming along really well, but we're going to take this slow," Close said. "She has rushed back from injuries her whole life, and it has put her at a deficit. This is about her being able to pick up her kids one day, as well as being a great point guard at UCLA, so we just need to be really mindful of putting her in a position to be successful."
A New Bruin in the Fold
And finally, fans may have noticed a new face among the Bruins in recent games. That would be freshman walk-on and sharpshooter Madeline Brooks, who Close decided to add on after receiving high recommendations from associates.
"I was initially against adding another player to our roster," Close said. "I agreed to meet with Madeline just as a favor to my colleagues, and her character, work ethic, and passion blew me away. It's about her heart and her commitment to doing what is right even when there are no coaches around, as much as it is about her being a great long-ball shooter. She has really been a great addition so far."
A quick YouTube search might just reveal the core essence of one Brittney Griner: a swagger parlayed in her national-spotlight interviews; hands seemingly designed for swatting shots (she has 11 blocks in just two games this season); a ridiculous frame imposing even for the untrained eye when opposing players stand beside her. And who could forget the aggression chronicled in Griner's fist-flying altercation with Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle two seasons ago?
Like it or not, this is the 6-foot-8 slice of pie the UCLA women's basketball team faces in its WNIT semifinal matchup against top-ranked Baylor on Thursday. They may have made some inroads in their win over Tennessee Tech on Sunday, but can these Bruins successfully enact David versus Goliath? Three key dynamics will likely determine UCLA's fate in Texas:
Battle of the Bigs
It's no secret that the Bruins - without the services of forwards Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker because of injuries - will have quite the load to handle with Griner manning the post. Be that as it may, the strategy is simple.
"Our goal is to stay behind her," sophomore forward Rhema Gardner said. "We'll play her straight up and push her out to try and turn her into a jump shooter."
UCLA will also need its own share of output from the post in order to jump-start the offense. In other words, redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa will be looked upon to continue to crash the boards and put up points as the team's makeshift center.
"Atonye has to be a double-double player for us," coach Cori Close said. "It may not be her post-ups; it may be picking and popping, but she'll have to find ways in her game to create those opportunities."
The Other Bear
While Griner may garner the national attention, Baylor still wields a potent backcourt weapon in sophomore guard Odyssey Sims. Last season's Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Sims has built a reputation as both a slasher and a shooter (she shot at a.453 clip from beyond the arc in 2010-2011), and it will be imperative for the Bruins to limit the Baylor guard's presence on the court.
"With Baylor, the ball starts in Odyssey Sims' hands," Close said. "We have to keep her in front of us and, at the same time, get close enough to disrupt her vision so that she isn't throwing pinpoint passes."
Thursday's game marks UCLA's first road game of the year, and while it's certainly one way to break in the road jerseys, how the Bruins compose themselves in a hostile environment figures to matter a great deal. After all, only three of the eight players (Nyingifa, senior guard Rebekah Gardner, and junior guard Mariah Williams) who have been out on the court so far saw significant playing time in seasons past.
"More than anything in the game plan, it's the mental state going into a game like this," Close said. "We need to go in there with a sense of freedom and the desire to compete. No pressure is on us."
Ask Rhema Gardner, and it's a point well taken.
"We're definitely not afraid," she said. "We're more excited than anything."
When Cori Close made her prodigal return to Westwood as the head coach of the UCLA women's basketball team in April, she came with a reputation as a basketball mind specializing in offense.
But on Sunday, she put to display a defensive bag of X's and O's, her Bruins playing with an air-tight defensive fervor that had their coach glowing after UCLA's 74-52 victory against Tennessee Tech at Collins Court.
"I was very pleased with our defense today," Close said. "We were able to get out and run and put the defense in situations where it couldn't rotate, but that came with our physical play on the boards; we boxed out and controlled possessions. We're really causing teams to get out of rhythm by switching on every matchup."
While redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa had yet another stalwart game, posting her second double-double of the season with 16 points and 14 rebounds, it was sophomore guard Thea Lemberger who set the tone early for the Bruins. Within the opening two minutes of the game alone, Lemberger scored her first basket on a fastbreak layup, drew a charge, and hit a three-pointer for good measure to spark a 6-0 run. She ended the day with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, 4 assists, and a steal.
"For me, it's just about getting more comfortable with the new role I have this year, adapting, and being confident. I definitely expect more performances like this for myself," Lemberger said.
The second-year Bruin out of Santa Monica High also did her part in slowing down the Golden Eagles' most dynamic player in quick-footed senior guard Tacarra Hayes. Lemberger and starting backcourt mate Mariah Williams teamed up to limit Hayes to 13 points on just 6-of-16 shooting.
"Our team did a good job of following the scouting report on Hayes," Lemberger said. "She made some tough shots, but we made the defensive adjustments and contained her pretty well."
Two other Bruins who impacted today's game: sophomore center Corinne Costa and senior guard Rebekah Gardner. While Costa didn't have much to show for in the box score (two points, one rebound, one block, and five fouls), she certainly made her presence felt in the lane, altering numerous shots and fighting for position against Tennessee Tech's 6-foot-5 senior center Brittany Darling.
"Corinne came in and did one heck of a job," Nyingifa said. "It was really physical out there, but she came in with a positive attitude, ready to play defense and get boards. I'm really proud of her for just taking it and giving the team her all."
As for Gardner, she may have started off slow, but she picked up the pace in the second half, snaring rebounds left and right and draining mid-range jumpers off of isolation plays. Gardner wound up notching her first career double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds to go along with three steals.
"Every time you go to the free-throw line, that helps with the rhythm," said Gardner, who knocked down 7-of-8 from the charity stripe. "But I also came out with a more aggressive mindset, and that helped carry me through the entire game."
Next up for the Bruins? A date with first-team All-American Brittney Griner and top-ranked Baylor in the semifinals of the WNIT in Waco, Texas.
"I like the challenge," Nyingifa said. "We're going on the road for the first time, but we're pumped and ready to accept this challenge and take it head-on."
The fresh throwback threads were snug, the lively crowd of 914 cozy, and the UCLA women's basketball team continued the theme in its season opener, churning out a comfortable 67-59 win against McNeese State Friday at the Collins Court.
The Bruins may have advanced into the second round of the preseason WNIT, but perhaps more importantly, continued onward along the development curve, an identity steadily appearing. And if anything can be said this early on in the season, it's that coach Cori Close will be looking to tweak her offense to generate production from within the paint.
Against the Cowgirls, the Bruins put up assist after assist with the wing players penetrating the defense and either getting to the line, feeding the ball into the post or creating put-back opportunities. Redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa and sophomore combo guard-forward Rhema Gardner certainly reaped the rewards. Nyingifa again proved to be the stake in the claim, scoring 16 points and matching her career high with 12 rebounds. Gardner also shined with a game-high 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
"If we can get the ball into the paint and get it up on the glass, our rebounding angles will be better," Close said. "We have to attack the paint and not rely just on jumpers, and I thought we did a good job of being aggressive with that today."
The starting backcourt of junior Mariah Williams and sophomore Thea Lemberger shared the duty of floor general and did so effectively, the two combining for nine assists and a variety of heady plays. Small wonder Gardner and Nyingifa had a field day.
"When the guards push the ball, it gets us down the court to post up and get position," Gardner said. "That's just been our main focus so far, to get the ball up the court."
"We follow our guards," Nyingifa agreed. "If they're pushing the ball in transition, they're fulfilling their roles. We have a great court awareness with them, in terms of where we are on the court at all times."
One dynamic that figures to be an interesting one for the Bruins as the season stretches on is the transition from Pauley Pavilion to the more compact Collins Court inside the John Wooden Center. Smaller though it may be, the confines of the latter venue make for an advantageous feel for a young team that will need the fan support in its maturation process.
"I actually like it," Gardner said. "The fans are more up close and personal, so there's just a lot of energy. I like the atmosphere a lot."
The Bruins return to Collins Court on Sunday at 2 p.m. against East Tennessee State for the second round of the WNIT, retro jerseys, good vibe and all.
It was a grab bag of hard drives, flailing arms and gritty grapples in the paint, but in the end the UCLA women's basketball team's exhibition game against Vanguard served its purpose, providing the Bruins an opportunity to display their arsenal in an 81-52 win over the Lions.
Through it all, redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa proved her mettle as one of UCLA's go-to players this season, bumping and bruising her way to 22 points and 16 rebounds. The veteran Bruin also put her intangibles on display, gobbling up rebounds and bringing the ball up the court on numerous possessions.
If anything, Nyingifa's prowess was a microcosm of a need to interchange roles that coach Cori Close stressed will dictate just how far these Bruins will go this season.
"Our versatility is really hard to match up with," Close said. "We're best when we can defend and create stops, and then attack and get out in transition."
Other encouraging signs in UCLA's debut stemmed from the plays of freshmen Moriah Faulk and Kacy Swain. Faulk's performance in fact was strikingly similar to that of former Bruin guard Darxia Morris. The first-year guard stepped into her shots with the same ease and confidence Morris sustained last year, pouring in 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc.
"Her jumpers were automatic," Nyingifa said of Faulk. "You give her the ball, and she's going to shoot it, whether there's someone there or not. That was some great confidence she showed tonight."
As for Swain, the freshman from St. Bernard's High School worked in some nifty post moves, scoring on a variety of putbacks and jumpers en route to 17 points and nine rebounds. Provided she keeps it up, Swain figures to play a prominent role during a year in which big bodies will be a premium for the Bruins.
Perhaps the two players who, in their own respective ways, hold the keys to the Bruins' 2011-2012 season are none other than the Gardner sisters.
Sophomore guard Rhema Gardner put to use every inch of her lengthy frame, getting her hands in the passing lanes and sticking to her defensive assignments, with a pair of blocks and some fancy footwork to boot.
"Rhema came out and delivered right off the bat, using her length and making her presence known on both sides of the ball," Close said. "She had never started a college game before, so to watch her step into that new comfort zone with confidence and aggression was great to see."
And while Rebekah Gardner didn't exactly light up the scoring column - she finished the evening with a quiet 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting - the senior guard didn't hesitate to get physical, pulling down 11 rebounds and throwing her weight around in a few heated tussles for loose balls in the second half.
"All of those loose balls and rebounds that Rebekah got in the second half, when her shot wasn't falling, showed to me a step up in maturity," Close said. "A lot of times, when shots aren't falling, a good shooter will let that affect other areas of their games. But that didn't matter tonight; she was going to find other ways to help this team."
The final verdict? Tough to say. As with any typical exhibition game, plays at times ran rampant and rugged.
But for Close and her coaching staff, it was an indication that just maybe, the personnel is in place for the Bruins to keep clawing.
There is a certain charm to the way Cori Close conducts herself.
Whether it's the clasped hands when being spoken to, the instinctive tendency to lean over the table when speaking, or the calm gaze betrayed instantly by the lively coach-speak that bursts out when the conversation touches on her vision of the future, the first-year coach of the UCLA women's basketball team is, as senior guard Rebekah Gardner would say, "personable."
"We know that this year, it's a lot different with the coaching change," Gardner said. "But we've just got on board and gained a really good relationship with Coach."
Indeed, as if taking over for a successful coach in Nikki Caldwell weren't challenging enough, Close has taken charge of a team plagued by a wave of injuries during the offseason, most notable of which is the ruptured Achilles tendon of senior forward Jasmine Dixon, who will likely miss the season.
But if there's one thing that can be said for the Bruin coach, it's that adversity hasn't done much to temper her demeanor, even when the number of available bodies thus far in practice has ranged anywhere from five to nine.
"There's one way we're going to win: We're going to get more possessions than our opponents, and we're going to be more versatile," Close said. "And my thing is, if you bring your strengths every day, we have enough.The reality that we have to face is that there's not one player on our team who is playing a role she's played before."
That predicament resounds particularly well for Gardner, the sole active senior for the Bruins. Last season, the lanky sharp-shooting guard was essentially the sixth-man sparkplug. This time around, Close has called upon Gardner to become the primary scorer and vocal leader.
"It's different," Gardner said of her responsibilities this season. "But each year that I've been here, I've had to take on a new role. Each year, I've stepped in and taken on that role to the best of my ability, and I plan on doing the same this year."
The obstacles are certainly many for the Bruins in their attempt to vault back into the NCAA Tournament. But Close and her team remain determined as ever, slowly but surely learning to adopt and embrace a fighter's mentality.
"We had our best and hardest practice of the year the other day, and Mariah Williams asked me, 'Why, Coach, did you think it was our best practice?'" Close said. "And I told her, 'Because you had about six different forms of severe adversity thrown at you, and never once did you hang your head, and you had the best reps of the day at the end of practice, when you were most fatigued.'
"That was a huge step for us, but now we have to string those days together until that becomes the identity of our team. We haven't arrived yet, but we'll get there."
Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen selected five Bruins in his list of Top 10 athletes in the 33-season history of the Pac-10 Conference, including four in the Top 5.
Hansen, who has covered all 33 years of the Pac-10's existence, named UCLA Volleyball and Basketball star Natalie Williams as the No. 1 athlete. Williams was the first female athlete to be named a consensus All-American in both volleyball and basketball. She was also the Pac-10 Player of the Year in both sports, the National Player of the Year in volleyball twice, and a record-setting 16-time Pac-10 Player of the Week (eight honors in each sport).
Also ranked in Hansen's Top 10 are No. 3 Jackie Joyner-Kersee (track/basketball), No. 4 Kenny Easley (football), No. 5 (tied) Lisa Fernandez (softball) and No. 8 Gail Devers (track).
To read the article, CLICK HERE.
UCLA alumnae Lisa Willis and Nikki Blue are with new teams for the 2010 WNBA season. Willis signed with the Los Angeles Sparks on May 11, returning to the team that drafted her No. 5 overall in the 2006 WNBA Draft. She joins former UCLA teammate Noelle Quinn, who is in her second year with the Sparks and fourth year in the league. Blue was traded on May 12 from the Washington Mystics to the New York Liberty for Ashley Houts.
Willis has played in 84 career games and had her best season in 2008 with the New York Liberty, averaging 5.6 points per game off the bench, with a career-high of 22 points at Houston on Sept. 2, 2008. Blue has played in 96 games in her four-year professional career and is averaging 3.0 points and 1.8 assists per game. Blue was drafted in 2006 by the Mystics as the 19th overall pick.
Willis and Blue are considered to be amongst UCLA's all-time greats in women's basketball. They helped lead the Bruins to the 2006 Pac-10 Conference Tournament championship, with Willis nabbing MVP honors. Willis ranks as UCLA's all-time three-point leader (256) and the Pac-10's all-time steals leader (368). She left UCLA ranked ninth on the school scoring list with 1,677 points. Blue was just the fifth player in Pac-10 history to earn first-team all-conference honors four straight years. She finished her career ranked fifth on UCLA's all-time scoring list (1,797 points), second in assists (602) and third in steals (352).
UCLA women's basketball head coach Nikki Caldwell and Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick appeared on ABC's Good Morning America today to promote their annual Cruisin' for a Cause motorcycle tour to raise money and awareness for breast cancer.
You can watch their segment with Robin Roberts below:
UCLA head women's basketball coach Nikki Caldwell is currently participating on her annual 'Cruisin For A Cause' motorcycle tour to raise money for breat cancer research.
This year, the tour is going up the east coast. Caldwell and Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick are scheduled to hit New York this afternoon.
Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 11), they will be featured on ABC's Good Morning America at 8:30 am. Tune in and support Coach Caldwell on this great project and visit the website.
ESPNU will air a one-hour special reviewing the 2009-10 Pac-10 women's basketball season. The first airdate is Thursday, April 15 at 2 pm PT. It will also re-air on April 15 at 9 pm, April 18 at 2 pm and April 19 at 2 am.
The show includes a feature on UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell and a piece that includes Jasmine Dixon as one of the outstanding sophomores in the Pac-10.
UCLA women's basketball coach Nikki Caldwell, who led the Bruins to a 25-9 record and the second round of the NCAA Tournament, will take her talents to television on Sunday.
The personable Caldwell will serve as an in-studio analyst on CBS2's NCAA Post-Game Sports Central Show, joining anchors Jim Hill and Steve Hartman and Cal State Northridge men's coach Bobby Braswell.
The show is scheduled to air live following CBS' NCAA doubleheader coverage of the Regional Finals - approximately 4:00 pm PT.
Tonight's NCAA Second Round UCLA women's basketball game versus Nebraska will tip at approx. 6:35 pm PT and will be available on several different outlets.
ESPN2 will shown the game in UCLA's geographic region. This is on the standard definition ESPN2 channel. the HD version is scheduled to show a different game.
ESPNU is scheduled to show the game in its entirety.
In addition, the contest will also be available on ESPN360.com. Here is the link:
You can also listen to Dave Marcus, Tracy Murray and Mike Sondheimer call the action on UCLA All-Access at www.uclabruins.com.
The UCLA women's basketball team plays its NCAA first round game against North Carolina State tonight at 6:30 pm PT on ESPN2/ESPNU.
In the meantime, check out these recent articles on the Bruins:
UCLA women pin hopes on true freshman - Los Angeles Times (Mar. 21, 2010)
A Coach On The Rise - ESPNU/Palestra.net
UCLA women's basketball head coach Nikki Caldwell and men's basketball freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt are featured in today's Los Angeles Times as the newspaper previews the Pac-10 Tournament.
To read the feature on Caldwell, click here: Nikki Caldwell seeks to raise UCLA women's game.
To read about Honeycutt, click here: For UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, it's always overtime.
The UCLA Office of Residential Life is hosting a student pep rally for the UCLA women's basketball team on Wednesday, Mar. 3 at 7:30 pm in the Sproul Lecture Room.
Bruin head coach Nikki Caldwell and the team will answer questions from the audience, and there will be giveaway items for the UCLA students in attendance.
UCLA will play its final regular season games this weekend in Pauley Pavilion. The 25th-ranked Bruins host Arizona State on Thursday at 7 pm and Arizona for senior day on Saturday at 12:30 pm. UCLA students will receive free pizza at Saturday's game. The Bruins enter the week with a 20-7 overall record and have won six straight and 10 of their last 11 games.
Women's basketball player Erica Tukiainen is featured in this week's UCLA Sports Report. In the feature, Fox Sports' Courtney Jones talks with Erica about her transition from Finland to the U.S. and her experiences abroad. Erica also speaks three different languages in the interview!
The piece will air on Prime Ticket Thursday night, Feb. 11 on the Los Angeles Kings' postgame show. You can also watch it online on the Fox Sports West website.
The UCLA women's basketball team is featured today on ESPN.com. Women's basketball columnist Mechelle Voepel talks about the Bruins' 2-0 conference start this year and also gets some words from legendary coach Pat Summitt about Bruin head coach Nikki Caldwell.
A sampling of quotes about Coach Caldwell:
To read the article, CLICK HERE.
Former UCLA basketball star and current Los Angeles Sparks guard Noelle Quinn was on campus recently to promote the Sparks' UCLA Night. Quinn talked with UCLABruins.com about what she misses about UCLA and how it felt to be traded to the hometown Sparks in the latest segment of 90 Seconds With ...
To watch the video, CLICK HERE.
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