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.
After losing to Arizona 74-66 Thursday in Tucson, UCLA took another personnel hit midway through the first half of Saturday's game against Arizona State, when Moriah Faulk went down with an injury and would not return the rest of the way. And yet the Bruins managed to clinch their first Pac-12 road win of the season, beating the Sun Devils 64-48 in Tempe.
Notes from the two games in the desert are as follows:
Against the Wildcats
Foul trouble simply sealed the Bruins' fate on Thursday. Never mind the fact that the Wildcats enjoyed a 25-10 advantage in free-throw attempts, the key stretch was when Markel Walker and Thea Lemberger had to sit out a good chunk of the second half, each with four fouls. Just how crucial was the absence of those two players? After Lemberger picked up her fourth personal and took a seat on the bench with 9:18 left in the game (Walker had already sat out at the 14:04 mark), Arizona went on an 18-6 run to complete the come-from-behind win.
Against the Sun Devils
At this point, the Bruins' season is going the way of some cruel Shakespearean play, especially so after Faulk became UCLA's fourth casualty to injury in the first half. But behind the efforts of Walker, the Bruins persevered. The third-year forward played a game worth of a fantasy basketball league, sprinkling the box score with 15 points (she went 2-for-2 from behind the arc), 13 rebounds (six offensive and seven defensive), five assists, and three steals.
"I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win," Walker said. "I know I'm one of the more versatile players on the team, so I try to get my teammates good looks when I can, rebound the ball, and whatever else I can."
"I can't put a price tag on Markel's efforts," UCLA head coach Cori Close added. "She is one of the smartest basketball players I've been around, and she was very steady for us today. Her work on the boards, both offensively and defensively, was such a huge boost for us."
But more than anything, Close attributed today's win to the team's preparation coming into the game. The Bruins apparently went through some rigorous practice and film sessions, and their efforts certainly paid off.
"I'm most impressed with our preparation yesterday. Honestly, that's what led to the victory today," Close said. "Yesterday, every single player watched every single one of their minutes from the game before with an individual coach. The reality is, I thought our players were in a battle, and they responded so well to different things. When Arizona State went to zone defense in the second half, we were right on target. We knew exactly what we were going to do, we moved the ball quickly and got ourselves quick, easy shots."
Other observations to note: Corinne Costa had the jumper going today, knocking down a few shots from 10-15 feet away from the basket. It's a facet of her game that the sophomore center isn't quite known for, but apparently the ability has always been there.
"She hasn't had too many opportunities with that shot, but Corinne is actually a really good shooter, and she's more confident shooting the ball facing the basket than she is with her back to the basket," Close said.
And on the subject of role players, Close also dished credit to Rhema Gardner, who grabbed eight rebounds (several of which came at key junctures down the stretch), and Mariah Williams, who had six assists.
Said Close: "I think about the role players on this team, and they all did their jobs today. Corinne was hitting those jumpers and was a force in the middle, Rhema came through with eight rebounds in 16 minutes, and Mariah was really selfless. The role players were the glue for us today."
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.
Branding partnerships are tricky - but when done well, it's as comfortable as a favorite T-shirt.
UCLA, John Wooden and The Original Retro Brand, a popular apparel company that takes pop culture graphics and couples them with super soft, nice-fitting T-shirts, announced its exclusive UCLA John Wooden collection earlier this week to coincide with the Wooden Classic on Thursday night at Honda Center pitting Pac-12 Conference foes UCLA against Arizona.
UCLA t-shirts touting Wooden's 10 national championships and the phrase "What Would Wooden Do?" are included in the collection. The brand already has cache with the student body, as it worked with the UCLA student section, "The Den," to create its official T-shirt for this season.
The coupling is so snug, the Wooden family worked with the company, which will donate proceeds from the collection to support the "Nell and John R. Wooden Scholarship Fund," which is awarded to a deserving UCLA undergraduate student each year.
"Coach Wooden's passion, work ethic and dedication to being a mentor to his players will never be forgotten and is a perfect fit for our brand," said Marc Herman, owner of The Original Retro Brand.
Branding is a tricky thing - especially for a program like UCLA - which currently partners with adidas to create its official apparel and team uniforms. In today's world of chrome and matte green helmets, it's more important than ever UCLA works with adidas closely to create the present and future look for Bruins fans, players and staff.
But pairing the iconic history of the UCLA basketball program, John Wooden, with a popular and trendy apparel line allows UCLA to honor its past without forgetting its focus is still on the future.
Any UCLA fans who haven't had a chance to see the Bruins during their OC portion of the Bruin Road Show should definitely make the trip for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. tip-off for the Pac-12 Conference game against Arizona State at Honda Center.
It's a great venue to watch basketball - one of the great mysteries in pro sports is how an NBA team has never moved here full-time - and the Bruins played well in their win over Arizona on Thursday night, so it should be an interesting game as the Bruins try to get back to .500 in conference play.
UCLA basketball fans got a chance to meet new UCLA football coach Jim Mora at halftime of the Arizona game. Mora told Bruin fans he wants to make them feel proud to be wearing UCLA apparel and even led the crowd in the traditional 8-clap cheer.
After Mora left the court, he ran into Arizona coach Sean Miller, who was headed back out to the court with his team, but stopped to shake Mora's hand and offer him congratulations on the new gig.
Lamb Looking More Like a Lion
UCLA sophomore guard Tyler Lamb is quickly becoming one of the more exciting players to watch on the Bruins. He might not be getting the attention seniors Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson get as primary ball handlers, but Coach Ben Howland pointed out Lamb's defense against Arizona's Eric Fogg and in previous games. Lamb is the Bruins' best perimeter defender, which is a point Howland makes on a regular occasion to the media. If he can improve his 3-point shooting, which is just over 30 percent this season, Lamb will quickly be more than a defensive standout for the Bruins.
Jones Moves To Wing
Lazeric Jones has become such an an effective scorer for the Bruins, they've moved him to the wing and used Jerime Anderson as the ball-handler. It's something we discussed in a previous post and it was an effective way to use the pair of point guards against Arizona. But that doesn't mean Jones isn't still getting used to the change.
"I've never played off the ball in my life," Jones said. "It's a lot different.
"I'm trying to get used to it. If it helps us get wins, I'll do whatever the coach tells me to do."
High expectations have followed David and Travis Wear throughout their basketball careers, and while UCLA coach Ben Howland has exercised patience with the twins so far, that time might be coming to an end.
After the pair bludgeoned Arizona and led the Bruins to their first Pac-12 Conference victory, 65-58, on Thursday night at Honda Center, Howland set their best performance of the season as a baseline level of expectation, noting he'd like to see "more rebounds hopefully, less foul trouble."
It was about all he could ask after Travis finished with a career-high 20 points, as well as five rebounds and three blocks, and David had 14 points and five rebounds. The pair did it without center Josh Smith, who sat out with a concussion suffered in practice Wednesday.
"We need our bigs to score down low," said senior guard Lazeric Jones, who added 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. "Games like this, when my jump shot is not falling, it didn't make a lot of difference for us because they were banging down low.
"We need them to do that."
It's clear from the rotation and performance on the court that UCLA's success this season will be placed in the hands of the Wear twins. If UCLA is going to rebound in the second half of the season and make a run at the conference title and an NCAA Tournament bid, their continued growth is a must.
"They do not have very much (college game) experience," Howland said. "They didn't play much as freshmen (and sat out last season due to transfer rules). They have game experience like (true freshman) Norman (Powell), even though they are older."
They didn't look inexperienced against Arizona, battling for position down low and leaving a strong impression on Arizona. Coach Sean Miller said they "were very good getting the ball inside," and forward Solomon Hill said their "length is a big part of their success."
"That was a big emphasis the last couple days in practice, making sure everything was going toward the hoop and no fadeaways or shying away from contact," David Wear said. "It was unfortunate that we both got in foul trouble, so we couldn't be as aggressive as we would have liked to be. But still we came and set the tone early that we were going to play hard, play aggressive and hold it down low."
Howland said the pair practiced well, and it was important for them to see that translate to a game. Now, they'll just need to keep performing at that high level - with a lot more rebounding and a few fewer fouls.
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."
UCLA should know where it stands and what it needs to do after opening the season in the San Francisco Bay Area against Stanford and California.
The Bruins had their chances to open the Pac-12 Conference with a win - plenty of them. ESPN.com blogger Peter Yoon counted eight opportunities - to be exact - for the Bruins to take the lead in the second half at Stanford. The Bruins didn't score once and never took the lead in the 60-59 loss.
"It was a disappointing finish," Coach Ben Howland told reporters after the loss. "We fought back hard and put ourselves into a position with the ball to be able to take the open shot, but we just missed it."
Cal (11-3, 1-0 Pac-12) won't be any easier of an assignment. Coach Mike Montgomery has three explosive guards leading the way. Southern California natives and sophomores Allen Crabbe (15.6 points per game) and Justin Cobbs (12.4 ppg) have been tremendous, along with senior Jorge Gutierrez (13.7 ppg) in giving the Bears a strong start to the season.
There are still a few more questions before 2012.
- Can the Bruins find more consistency as a unit on offense? Lazeric Jones has been consistent all season but that's it. Travis Wear and Josh Smith haven't been able to maintain consistency and freshman Norman Powell is averaging fewer than 17 minutes so it won't be easy for him to emerge as a consistent scoring threat.
- Should Jerime Anderson run more of the offense so Jones has more scoring opportunities? Jones is the starting point guard but Anderson is completely capable and often involved in driving the Bruins' offense. It could benefit the Bruins offense to offer Jones more "shooting guard" opportunities. Anderson also has 14 fewer turnovers this season than Jones.
- What tricks does Coach Ben Howland have up his sleeve? This is a Bruins team that will need some TLC from its head coach and ultimately, a few strategic maneuvers that make up for the team's inconsistencies we've seen so far this season. It will be interesting to see what Howland can do to help this team battle for the conference title - and in the short term, beat Cal.
UCLA had its chances in its Pac-12 Conference opener at Stanford. Instead, the Bruins failed to take the lead once in the second half, despite numerous opportunities to do so.
It ended when senior point guard Lazeric Jones was blocked on UCLA's last possession, and the Cardinal held onto a 60-59 win.
We've been asking questions all season - but with the Pac-12 underway, we'll share some theories on what the Bruins will need moving forward.
should spend most of its time in a 2-3 zone defense.
Coach Ben Howland couldn't like what
he saw early, when Stanford used a 15-2 run against the Bruins' man-to-man
defense to take an early lead it wouldn't relinquish.
should use its hot-hand as a decoy late in the game.
Last night, the Bruins couldn't run a clean offensive set with the game on the
line because the Cardinal played great defense - and because the Bruins were so
obvious. Nobody doubted for a minute that Jones would get the ball, and sure enough,
Stanford was all over him and blocked his final attempt. UCLA is at its best
when it has multiple scorers, which means that's how the Bruins should approach
their most important possessions.
* David and Travis Wear need to make an impact every game for the Bruins to win the Pac-12. A combined 2-for-9 shooting performance isn't going to cut it. David did have a team-high eight rebounds but Stanford outrebounded UCLA, 38-34, overall. If the Wear twins can make sure they're scoring and rebounding every game, the Bruins will look back on this loss to Stanford as an important part of their maturation process.
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.
For the UCLA women's basketball team, though, any thoughts of celebrating the New Year with Dick Clark might just have to be put on hold, as questions still linger for a group that will begin start of Pac-12 play tonight at 7pm against California at the John Wooden Center.
Namely, the Bruins are back to the lineup-by-availability routine at a point in the season when Coach Cori Close envisioned they would be at or near full strength. The already-short-handed team recently lost key forward Atonye Nyingifa for the rest of the season with a knee injury, leaving Close in quite a predicament in the wake of the conference season.
"It's been a bit of a crisis management," Close admitted on Wednesday. "There has been a lot of individual and even collective growth so far this season, but the pieces have changed so dramatically for us, and it's a challenge to establish continuity on both ends of the floor."
And considering the quality of their first pair of conference foes, the Bruins have little choice but to hit the ground running. After tonight's game against Cal, UCLA squares off against powerhouse Stanford on Saturday. As such, this week should provide some insight into how the Bruins stack up in the Pac-12's pecking order.
"Stanford and Cal have really separated themselves from the rest of the conference over the course of the preseason," Close said. "Both teams are battle-tested, very athletic, and deep. But at this point, it doesn't matter who we play or what we've accomplished in the preseason. We have to finish in the top four in the Pac-12 and make a deep run in the conference tournament."
All hope certainly isn't lost. Though they lose a surefire double-double machine and defensive stalwart in Nyingifa, the Bruins still have leading scorer Rebekah Gardner (15.2 ppg), as well as Markel Walker (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), who will be looked upon to carry some of the scoring load.