After taking down Hawaii, UCLA just a game away from reaching Sweet 16 for first time since 1999

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WESTWOOD, Calif. – Third-seeded UCLA meets No. 6 USF in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament Monday evening. The last time the Bruins advanced past the second round was in 1999 when the team reached the Elite 8. UCLA had to beat Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine on Saturday before advancing to Monday’s contest.

It certainly wasn’t pretty, but chalk held, with UCLA (24-8), hosting at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood, Calif., dowsing the hopes of Hawaii, 66-50, as play tipped off on Saturday afternoon in the opening round of the tournament.

Both teams got off to a rocky start, trading misses and turnovers for much of the opening minutes, until the Bruins’ Monique Billings struck first blood with a mid-range jumper a little more than two minutes in. UCLA opened up a 6-0 lead before Hawaii, appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 after winning the automatic bid from the Big West Conference, finally found the bottom of the net on a 3-pointer by Marissa Wimbley off a feed from Destiny King with a little more than seven minutes to go in the opening period.

Wimbley would again find her mark from long-range a little less than two minutes later to cut the UCLA lead to two (10-8), and King, a senior and the only Hawaii player to average double-figure scoring (10.5 ppg/11.3 ppg in conference) this season, would combine for a jumper and a foul shot to give the visitors a briefly held one-point lead (10-11) at the 4:25 mark. After UCLA’s Kelli Hayes dropped in a layup, Kalei Adolpho made good on a jumper to restore Hawaii’s one-point advantage (12-13). From there, however, the Bruins finished the quarter on an 8-2 run to take a 20-15 lead by the end of the period.

From there, the UCLA engine simply gathered steam, with UCLA launching the second quarter on an 11-1 burst and outscoring the Bows 17-10 in the second stanza to take a 37-25 advantage into the break.

UCLA guards Nirra Fields and Jordin Canada put on a show in the opening minutes of the third period, combining for a 10-4 run interrupted only by free throws as the Bruins held Hawaii scoreless from the field for a full six minutes.  Indeed, the Wahine landed only a single field goal in the third quarter, a layup by King at the 3:17 mark, but managed to hold their own at the charity stripe, where they netted nine points in 10 trips to the line. As a result, the Bruins were able to add only two points to their lead in the third quarter.

In particular, while dominating the paint on both ends of the floor, UCLA was also able to shut down Hawaii’s outside option throughout the second half. Wimbley, who netted both of her long-ball attempts in the opening period and went 3-5 from downtown in the first half (accounting for all of Hawaii’s long-distance makes in its 11 attempts in the opening half) was completely shut down in the second half. Collectively, the Bruins allowed the Wahine just one of their 12 perimeter shots (8.3 percent) in the latter periods.

“They do things to you that keep you from shooting the ball well,” said Hawaii head coach Laura Beeman of the UCLA defense. “They make you turn the ball over. They make you shoot the ball very, very quickly.

“They’re long. They’re quick. … [T]hey’re great athletes. They cover ground very, very quickly,” Beeman continued. “Not only with their speed but just their length and their arms. I though we adjusted pretty well. But they make you play fast. They hit those gaps very, very quickly; they close out very, very quickly. They are just a very athletic, disciplined team.”

Those same factors played a role in extinguishing the Bows’ 3-point game, said Beeman. “We weren’t able to get [the ball] into the gaps; we weren’t able to get into the drive and kick because they close the gaps so quickly. It’s definitely something. Over the last two games, we’ve done very, very well. They’re good. They take you out of what you want to do.”

Despite widening the gap to as many as 22 points midway through the final period, by the final buzzer, the Bruins had added just two points more to the margin—and for similar reasons. After Lajahna Drummer converted a conventional three-point play to make the score 60-38 with 5:39 left in the game, the Wahine shaved six points off the UCLA edge in the game’s closing minutes, with seven of Hawaii’s 12 final points coming at the penalty line.

“We have to learn to defend without fouling,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close after the game, lamenting the negative effects of unnecessary fouls on the Bruins’ transition game. “It turned it into a half-court game.”

Fields added that in addition to giving their opponents “easy shots,” the constant parade to the charity stripe also made it more difficult for the Bruins to establish a favorable rhythm to their game.

Turnovers (18 for UCLA, 17 for Hawaii) and offensive rebounding–Hawaii translated a 20-11 edge on the offensive glass into a 12-9 advantage in second-chance points, while outrebounding the taller Bruins 45-42 for the game as a whole—were two other areas Close identified as in need of attention. Noting that offensive rebounding had been a point of emphasis for her squad throughout the season, Close observed that UCLA’s game plan typically calls for control of the possession game. To control possessions, the Bruins must win the battle of the boards, while minimizing their own turnovers and forcing opponents to cough up the ball.

“Today,” said Close, “we didn’t do either.”

Close also cited her team’s lack of its usual enthusiasm during one stretch when things were going poorly. “[T]hat team spirit has been a really wonderful characteristic of this team all year long, and I really challenged them, that no matter the circumstance, they have to keep that. When you have a sort of a game like this that’s a little bit ugly and hard to get a rhythm going you actually need it more.”

Still, there was plenty for Close to be happy about, beginning, she said, with the play of Fields and freshman reliever Kennedy Burke. Fields finished with a team-high 16 points, to which she added eight rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. Burke came off the bench for 15 points, on 6-7 from the floor, including 2-3 from long range. She also contributed five boards, two assists, a block and a steal in her 24 minutes on the floor.

Noting that her Bruins have consistently gotten big minutes from their bench over the course of the season, “Somebody is going to come in and give us a punch [off the bench],” said Close. “I think it’s a credit to their selflessness, their readiness, their mental toughness. So obviously this was another example tonight.”

Close singled out Burke, a 6-1 guard, for special praise: “Today I thought it was really Kennedy Burke, who really came in and the back of the zone just did a great job using her length, got us some great passes in the open floor and was good at attacking the glass.”

Close also celebrated her team’s ability to pull together and “find a way to win,” despite an unusually poor shooting night from Wooden and Naismith watch-lister Jordin Canada, the team’s leading scorer at 15.9 points per game (15.1 ppg in conference). Canada notched just 10 points on a disappointing 3-11 (27 percent) from the field.

“I thought we played a little bit rusty tonight,” said Close, who credited Hawaii for its consistent aggressiveness—“[they were] aggressive to the goal, aggressive to go inside, aggressive on the rebounds,” as the source of part of the problem. “I didn’t think it was one of our best games in terms of our fluidity and our teamwork and having a good rhythm about us. But what I do like is that when you have bad shooting nights and you don’t have rhythm, you find ways to win.

“I think in the NCAA Tournament, it’s really important when things aren’t pretty or things aren’t comfortable, you find other ways just to get the job done and we were able to do that, so I’m proud of my team,” Close continued.

If it was a “tough shooting day” for Canada and the Bruins, who collectively knocked down 48.5 percent (16-33) of their shots in the first half, then dropped to 38.5 percent (10-26) in the second, still finishing a respectable 44.1 percent from the field on the day, then it’s hard to know what term one should use to describe the shooting of the Rainbow Wahine. They opened the game shooting just 28.6 percent (8-28) from the field, and fell to a still worse 12.5 percent (4-32) field-goal shooting in the second half as UCLA ratcheted up its defense, to finish the game at 20 percent from the floor. But for their 30 trips to the line, where they collected 22 points—nearly half of their scoring in the game—they would have suffered an even more scorching rout.

Megan Huff was the only double-digit scorer for Hawaii; her 18 points were good for the game high, and with 13 rebounds, also a game high, added to her tally, she logged the game’s only double-double. Still, apart from one 3-pointer—an anomaly for the 6-3 sophomore center who had previously attempted only eight shots from beyond the arc all season, netting just three of them—Huff’s marksmanship was just 33 percent (4-12) from the floor, with nine of her points coming on near-perfect (9-10) shooting from the line.

King also struggled to find her shot, finishing with just eight points on 2-9 from the field and 4-8 from the penalty stripe. Still, the 5-9 senior wing found other ways to contribute, hauling down nine rebounds and handing out two assists.

“We came here to win. … There are a lot of disappointed kids in the locker room,” said Beeman of her underdog Hawaii squad, a team that felt the heavy weight on its shoulders of representing not only its school and the Big West Conference, but also the entire state of Hawaii in making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

“If you’re not from Hawaii, you won’t understand it. But to be the first team from Hawaii to come back to the tournament since [1998], it’s an honor.”

“It’s really exciting for the state of Hawaii that we can represent,” added Huff.

Still, the final score does not reflect the heart and hustle with which Hawaii played. Their 20-11 edge in offensive rebounds, a point of pride for Beeman, does.

“I think that’s pretty spectacular for a team that is as athletic and long as they are,” said Beeman.

Neither does the box score reflect the number of times Wahine players dove to the floor in pursuit of loose balls, or hurtled fearlessly into the throat of a Bruin-clogged lane, constantly on the attack and putting their bodies on the line in pursuit of a dream.

Hustle is so much a part of the team ethos at Hawaii that Beeman says she’s come to take it for granted.

“When you get to this big of a stage, everyone wants it. You have to have execution. Everyone wants to win. I never doubted this team’s ‘blue-collar’ attitude, if you will. That’s something I don’t worry about. They showed me they want it, they got on the floor. I think we had a little bit of a lull at times. UCLA was beating us to some loose balls and deflections.”

Some, perhaps. But certainly not all. Perhaps not even most.

Both Beeman and King, who was Beeman’s first recruit as Hawaii’s head coach, choked up as they reflected on their team’s first visit to the tournament this century.

“I don’t think it’s often kids get to play for their dreams. This was a dream, from the moment they came walking in to the school. [Destiny King], my first recruit, she was the kid I said that I need to help change this program. She did that. For the [seniors], for the first four-year kids that I have ever had, to end on this note, it makes my heart full,” said Beeman.

“That was a dream come true to come to the tournament,” said King, battling back tears. “Was it the result we wanted? No. But for our program and our state, it means a lot for us, because we put ourselves on the map. … It means a lot …. It means a lot to our fans and a lot to us as a team.”

UCLA will face sixth-seeded South Florida, who won its opening round match against 11th seed Colorado State in a 48-45 cliff-hanger, in the second round on Monday, March 21, at Pauley Pavilion.

Side Notes:

California Dreaming: King, a Southern California native who attended high school at nearby Long Beach Poly, and fellow senior Wimbley, who accounted for three of Hawaii’s four treys in the game and who attended Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, near Sacramento, were two out of seven Californians on the 13-member Hawaii roster. Their appearance here at Pauley Pavilion, brought out a sizable crowd of friends, family members, and fellow Long Beach Poly alums waving banana leaves in support of the visitors, who enjoyed vocal and visible support despite being some 2,558 miles from campus.

Putting the Past Behind: Many believe that No. 10-ranked UCLA’s March 6 loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament final might have made the difference between a two-seed and a three-seed for the Bruin’s in the NCAA Tournament. In the loss, as in today’s win, the Bruin’s got off to a rocky start, as the Beavers amassed a 44-17 first-half lead, then staved off the comeback efforts of UCLA, who pulled within nine, late in the fourth quarter, but were unable to close the gap completely, falling 69-57, as OSU earned its first Pac-12 Conference Tournament title. Close said she and her team have put that loss behind them.

Close liked her team’s energy up until that final game, she said.

“We had a bad game, maybe a bad half, but I wouldn’t call it a bad tournament,” said Close. After the game she had each of her players write down what they had learned from the experience. What they wrote “had insights” and “were well-spoken.”

Close believes that her team had learned from its failure in Seattle.  After all, she observed, “basketball is a game of failures. You fail more often than you succeed.”

That in itself is a valuable insight, and one of the reasons I believe that basketball is such a great sport for women, who are too often socialized to dwell on their mistakes. The game moves so fast, there is no time to engage in self-recriminations, mired in the last play, fixating on every off-the-mark shot or missed defensive assignment. To do so only compounds the initial error as the game moves on without you.

Close agrees. “It’s a great game for self-esteem,” she said.

In any event, the learning curve was reflected in the speed with which UCLA recovered today after a number of turnovers and poor shooting in the opening period. Though there are still some rough edges to be sanded (rebounding perhaps foremost among them), the Bruins demonstrated a resilience today that will prove invaluable as they make their way through the tournament.

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