Kansas City – It started with a jumper by center Monique Billings, who went on to make her next two buckets. It ended with a defensive rebound by point guard Jordin Canada, as the UCLA Bruins took down Texas, 84-75, to reach their first Elite 8 since 1999.
What happened in between those plays was the kind of execution that UCLA has been striving for all year: a balanced attack. Canada scored 22 points and dished eight assists, Billings had 17 points, Kennedy Burke put up 15 points, and all but one player scored. Only two Bruins didn’t have at least two rebounds against the powerhouse Longhorns, who beat them in Sweet 16 play in 2016.
Canada said experience made the difference for her team this time around.
“We’ve been here before. We’ve been through adversity,” she said. “We know they’re going to go on a run, but it’s about how we stay composed. And I thought that was the difference between this time and two years ago, was that we were able to stay together as a team and play team ball.”
“And there wasn’t any one individual, everybody stuck together through that adversity, and that was the difference.”
Though UCLA set the tone with a strong start, the end of the game had a surreal feel, perhaps because they have been stopped in the round of 16 for the last two seasons. With 59 seconds to go they led Texas, 80-72. Players could smell the win, but Canada kept them in check.
“Jordin was telling us, ‘there’s still one minute left!’ and we said, ‘we know!'” senior co-captain Kelli Hayes said with a laugh.
But when Longhorn guard Lashann Higgs missed a three-pointer and Canada secured the rebound with eight seconds left, the smiles came out. Billings said the win was a relief.
“It was starting to feel like groundhog day, so we had to turn that around,” she said.
UCLA and Texas played a two-season series beginning in 2014, and then had a closed scrimmage in Colorado last October. Besides the familiarity with one another, the teams were evenly-matched.
The Longhorns answered the Bruins’ first-quarter punch with a run to cut the lead to one with 1:17 to go, but a Billings bucket and back-to-back baskets by Japreece Dean put them back up by eight points at the break. UCLA stepped up their defense in the second period and forced Texas into eight of their game-high 21 turnovers, and kept three starters from scoring.
The third quarter saw the Longhorns open on a 9-0 run with a multi-pronged guard attack. Canada, who was an uncharacteristic 0-5 in the first half, finally broke the seal off the basket at the 7:46 mark with a three-point shot. She never looked back. Canada scored nine points in the frame to help the Bruins pad their lead by ten at the break.
The fourth period saw UCLA keep Texas at bay until the 1:57 mark, when an Ariel Atkins bucket cut their lead to 76-72. But baskets by Burke and Canada, as well as disruptive defense, helped the Bruins close out.
Atkins led the Longhorns with 20 points, while Jatarie White had 17 and Brooke McCarty, 10.
Hayes said that going into the game, her team was hungry for a different outcome.
“Our maturity has been escalating….we’re getting better every day,” she said. “We knew this was our game, and it was payback from two years ago. We worked really hard together, on every possession, every play. When they went on runs, we went on runs. We stuck together and didn’t let them get the best of us.”
Texas coach Karen Aston said her team was “a little uncharacteristic with the basketball.”
“I thought we had inopportune turnovers, and way too many in the first half, in particular,” she said. “Then I thought we came out after halftime, made a really good run but took some inopportune shots and maybe tried to home run it a little bit, instead of making them play defense longer, which led into transition points for them.”
“Our transition defense was uncharacteristic today, as was the turnovers, but I think you have to give UCLA credit and Jordin Canada credit for the way she managed the basketball team.”
Canada is known for willing her team to win when they are down, with clutch plays and improbable scoring.
“(When she tries) to put everyone on her back….that is when everyone panics, is when she says ‘I’ve got to do this by myself,'” Close said. “I thought she showed so much maturity (tonight).”
Close said the Bruins have needed more role players besides their stars, Canada and Billings.
“That’s what we needed, other people to step up and support Jordin and Monique for us to move on,” she said.
UCLA faces regional first seed Mississippi State Sunday for the right to go on to the Final Four.
Mississippi State 71, North Carolina State 57
Top-seeded Mississippi State shook off a slow start to dominate North Carolina State, 71-57, and advance to their second straight Elite 8.
Teaira McCowan led four Bulldogs in double figures with 24 points and 15 rebounds, while Victoria Vivians, Morgan William and Roshunda Johnson each had 14, 13 and 12, respectively. Kiara Leslie was the lone Wolfpack player in double figures, with 27 points.
MSU jumped out to a 10-point lead, which NC State whittled to four by the end of the first quarter. The second period saw the Wolfpack claim a one-point lead at the eight-minute mark. The Bulldogs ran it back up to ten points almost six minutes later, but another run by their opponents cut it to five at the break.
A team effort by MSU to start the third quarter helped them inflate their lead to as much as 17 in the last minute. They kept up that pressure in the final frame and never looked back.
McCowan said the Bulldogs stepped up their defense in the last two quarters for the win.
“Keeping them from getting the back door (buckets) and….making sure that my teammates didn’t get beat on the back door was a main key for the second half,” she said.
MSU will face UCLA Sunday in Elite 8 play.