UCLA 86, Love and Basketball, 80

Nikki Caldwell and her UCLA Bruins set a tone yesterday, and the pitch was decidedly Tennessee: rebounds.

The new coach’s young team pulled down 57 rebounds in their first game of the season – an exhibition against Love and Basketball. That was 15 more boards than the Bruins’ season average last year of 42, and the difference was noticeable from tipoff. Caldwell alluded to it in an on-court post-game interview.

“Rebounds are a point of emphasis for us,” she said.

So, apparently, is a strong inside game, as UCLA repeatedly got the ball inside the paint for the bucket, particularly in the first half. That is another Tennessee emphasis, to be sure, and it’s a vast improvement.

Though the Bruins still have work to do, things are looking up for them like they haven’t for a long time. Caldwell told fans after the game what her long-range plans are.

“Our goal is to bring a national championship here to UCLA,” she said.

Once again, welcome to Los Angeles, coach.

Caldwell, who is still experimenting with her lineup, started Nina Earl, Christina Nzekwe, Chinyere Ibekwe, Tierra Henderson and Doreena Campbell. They got the team off to a fast start with their scoring and rebounding. Usually when a player missed, a teammate would step up and nail the put-back.

Earl was hustling for the ball, and it seemed like everyone was making their shots – no doubt because the Bruins shot 53 percent in the first half. Henderson and Campbell were also making their presences known.

In the second half UCLA faded a bit. They began missing shots in the paint, and weren’t pulling down the rebounds they had been. Caldwell’s displeasure was evident when she wondered aloud to the bench, “why aren’t we taking care of the basketball?” Shortly after that, she substituted in four players.

The Bruins buckled down, scoring more while limiting their opponents. At one point they lead by 16, but then seemed to run out of gas. They let Love and Basketball score too many points in the last few minutes, but held on to win, 86-80.

Besides the rebounding, UCLA team scoring was balanced – a good sign (http://uclabruins.cstv.com/sports/w-baskbl/stats/2008-2009/loveucla.html). The offensive sets also looked good.

“We’re a work in progress,” Caldwell told fans.

Fading in games is one thing the Bruins need to work on, as their second half shooting was 32 percent. Free throws are another, as they shot 58.6 percent from the charity stripe. And it seems that the posts need to emphasize defense, as UCLA logged only two blocks in the game.

Now for the extras.

My seat is five rows behind the bench, on the aisle. I couldn’t have personally picked a better seat; I’m so close!

Tasha Butts was out with the team during pre-game warm-ups, watching them. At one point she glanced up and saw me, and we both waved.

The UCLA band has got a lot of spirit, and I give them props. During shoot-around they clapped out each player’s name and cheered when she would turn and wave. During opponent free throws they made monkey and bird noises to distract.

When Caldwell first came out, I didn’t recognize her from the back because her trademark short hair has turned into a bob. She looked great in a pants suit outfit with an open neckline.

During the game, she is usually crouched down to the floor in front of one end of the bench or the other. During timeouts, Caldwell is sitting on a stool in front of her team – a stool that reminds me a lot of the one Tennessee brought to Pauley when they played UCLA last December.

The entire coaching staff sits in the middle of the bench, with four players on each side of them. I’ve not seen that done before.

Caldwell is a calm presence. She didn’t say much to players the first part of the game, but as it went on, she would pull certain players aside and talk to them personally. She also addressed the entire bench at the end of the game.

I get the feeling that calm and exacting is her style, and I like that combination. Caldwell, Butts and Tony Perotti seem to have taken the very best of Tennessee, mixed it up with their own knowledge and are dispensing it. That’s why I think this team has great potential.

Caldwell also sees things the former coach did not. She started Nzekwe yesterday, who had never started a game in her college career. Nzekwe responded by pulling down seven rebounds and scoring five points.

The only downer yesterday was the lack of attendance. At one point, 20 minutes before tipoff, there seemed to be more in the band than in the audience. I really hope that Caldwell’s inevitable guidance of this team to the top of the Pac-10 will fill up Pauley Pavilion.

Next up, “SRP” next Sunday. The Bruins play their first real game Nov. 16, against Cal State Fullerton.