Los Angeles, Calif. – It was anticipated to be a close game, but No. 9 UCLA turned it into a show.
Jordin Canada blazed down the lanes en route to scoring 16 points and dishing out a career-high 14 assists on just two turnovers. Monique Billings dominated the paint and shut down opponents on defense, to tally 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds – 12 defensive – when it was all over. Kelli Hayes put up a career-high 16 points for the Bruins, and two others also scored in double figures in their 84-64 win over Michigan.
UCLA got off to a 14-0 start, and the Wolverines never recovered. The hosts were ahead 45-25 at halftime, and padded their lead to as much as 31 points in the third quarter and 32 in the fourth before coach Cori Close began emptying her bench.
It was a display of chemistry for the Bruins, whose momentum seems to grow stronger with every game. They were having fun on the floor, and on big plays, of which there were many, there were plenty of congratulations to go around.
“I really enjoy watching them do their job,” Close said. “When I see them celebrate each other on plays – there’s a selflessness about this group. It’s been a long time since (we have) had this kind of chemistry.”
Close had her usual critiques, but was much more pleased than not with the win.
“Our theme this year is grit, and today it was hard to get Monique touches,” Close said. “All of her plays were hustle plays. And with Jordin having 14 assists and only two turnovers, now you’re not only trying to play your best game, but to raise the level of everybody else’s game. I’m really proud of their growth.”
Close said she sees signs of great progress.
“What I’m most proud of is we grew, and they took ownership,” she said. “We’ve been lacking in defensive rebounding, and they turned it into a strength….we’ve been working on sustaining focus and energy, and they turned it into a strength.”
“As a team, you know who you are at this point, and it’s who wants to address their weaknesses and put in the time and energy to change them.”
The Wolverines, who were 8-2 coming into the match up, struggled early with shooting and grabbed only 26 rebounds on the day. They were without Boogie Brozoski and Sam Trammel, who stayed home to prepare for final exams, and Nicole Munger, who sustained a foot injury last week and didn’t play. The game against the Bruins was also Michigan’s last game of a three-week road trip.
“It was an adjustment for us not having Nicole and Sam, especially, with their scoring,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
But Barnes Arico gave credit to their hosts.
“I’ve watched a lot of film, and I don’t know if I’ve seen them play as well as they did tonight. They were clicking on all cylinders and they defended us extremely well. They executed on the offensive end and rebounded as well. They’re a great team.”
Freshman Kysne Gondrezick led four Wolverines in double figures with 18 points.
Canada, Billings and Hayes were part of a 2014 recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Bruins had a tough schedule that fall and lost several games. They picked up momentum and went on to win the WNIT Championship at the end of the year. Last season, as sophomores, they helped guide the Bruins to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 17 years.
Since beginning play a month ago, the upperclassmen have seemed even more confident. Billings, in particular, is extremely aggressive. In one sequence against Michigan, she dribbled halfway up the court and floated a jumper through the net. She then turned around and got back on defense quickly enough to intimidate the Wolverine player with the ball.
Canada, though always one of the shortest players on the court, routinely goes up against much longer opponents in the paint and gets the rebound, only to streak away with it on a fast break. She said it’s a mindset she’s always had.
“I don’t fear anyone, I’m not afraid to play against anyone; I just play my game.,” she said. “I know how to play it and I don’t think that since I’m 5-5 and (the opponent is) six feet tall, that doesn’t phase me. I know my job and I do my job.”
Close said she doesn’t worry about the team peaking too early in the season, because they still have much to work on.
“I don’t think we’re close (to peaking),” she said. “We made a huge step today, but I’m been on them pretty hard, and I think this is the first time we’ve outrebounded a top-level team with our physicality and aggressive plays.”
“I don’t think we’re in danger of peaking with a growth mindset. We are still making a lot of pass and catch errors, and our assists-to-turnover ratio could be better. We’re not establishing our inside game enough.”
UCLA hits the road for their last three games before Pac 12 play begins. Their biggest challenge will be next Sunday, when they take on No. 6 South Carolina.