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UCLA holds off South Florida for first Sweet 16 trip in 17 years

Nirra Fields gets crafty to score. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.
Nirra Fields gets crafty to score. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

Los Angeles, Calif. – Jordin Canada erupted for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including 6-for-6 free throws in the last 25 seconds, to lift the UCLA Bruins past the South Florida Bulls Monday in round two of the NCAA Tournament.

The win sends the Bruins to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999. They head to the Bridgeport Regional in Connecticut, where they will take on power house Texas Saturday afternoon.

“This is just a huge next step for our program,” Bruins coach Cori Close said. “I’m so proud of these guys and their stamina. I just thought it was a really huge toughness game”

Courntey Williams gets one by Monique Billings. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

The usual suspects filled up the stats sheet, as Canada led with 19 points, Nirra Fields added 14 and Kari Korver and Monique Billings had 12 and 11 points, respectively for UCLA. Courtney Williams put up 29 points and Alisia Jenkins added 23 for the Bulls. But the game was anything but typical, as it was more like two games in one.

Both teams, ranked in the top 25 for most of the season, began the game with high energy and intensity. The Bruins, in particular, used stifling full court pressure defense to jump out to a 7-0 start, and they maintained a small lead even as their speed caused them to miss shots.

In the second quarter, UCLA improved both their shooting and rebounds. Fields, with help from Billings, contained prolific scorer Williams to 6 points on 3-15 shooting by halftime, when the Bruins had mounted a 40-24 lead. But South Florida went on a 9-0 run to begin the third period, and held the Bruins to only 10 points in 10 minutes.

Jordin Canada scores on the fadeaway in the fourth quarter. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

Canada, who had 2 points going into the fourth quarter, finally ignited to pace UCLA. Fields, who had been hot in the first half, scored only two in the final stanza as she tried to contain Williams, who put up 11 points. Canada was continually fouled in the last 25 seconds of the game, and she calmly sunk all six shots.

She said that as her shots weren’t falling earlier in the game, she had tried to remain patient, and to keep shooting.

“Obviously I struggled in the first half shooting-wise, but my coaches and one of our mental trainers, Joshua, just told me to stay the course, and it’s not all about making the shots,” Canada said. “It’s about what you could do on the defensive end or just getting deflections, and I tried to do that as much as possible. And rebounding. And then just let the game come to me in the fourth quarter.”

Shelithia Stringfield goes up against UCLA’s bigs. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

Only four South Florida players scored on the night, which coach Jose Fernandez said was uncharacteristic of them. He credited the Bruins for their preparation and execution.

“You have to hand it to UCLA, I thought they did some really good things defensively and scoring,” Fernandez said “I have to give them credit for how well they pressured us and denied the wings. They didn’t let us get into some side-to-side stuff so I think they had a lot to do with our struggles offensively to get other people involved.”

Both teams played atypically slow in first-round action Saturday, as UCLA handled Hawaii and South Florida edged Colorado State. The Bruins are one of three other Pac-12 teams to move on to the round of 16.

Courtney Williams drives to the basket as Nirra Fields defends. Photo by Nicc Jackson.

In facing the Longhorns, Canada will play against former high school teammate Imani Boyette, Texas’ star center.

More quotes:

I am proud of this group. This senior class (Williams, Jenkins, and Shelethia Stringfield) has won more games for our program than any senior class in school history and I am definitely going to miss these guys because not only are they great basketball players but they are great people and they are going to be very successful after leaving the University of South Florida.

Jose Fernandez

Alisia Jenkins gets one up and in. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

My favorite moment would be against Mississippi State, hitting the game-winner. That’s the biggest moment I had—it was amazing.

Courtney Williams

My biggest moment was when I set the rebounding record. That’s something I’ll definitely tell my kids about.

Alisia Jenkins

Our identity as a team is to play fast, and sometimes there will be some errors to go along with that. (Playing cautiously) is not who we are. We use out athleticism, we use our length, we play up and down. So sometimes there’s going to be some mistakes in that.

Courtney Williams scores on the fast break. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

I thought the energy got out of hand when we were fouling in the back court the first half. (In committing senseless fouls) is where we need to reign the energy in.

We talk about the definition of mental toughness in our program – it’s doing the right thing over and over again even when the circumstances aren’t going your way. When it wasn’t going our way, how do you be mentally tough enough to get that rhythm back? To focus on the things under your control, to put that behind you and play present in the next possession. I loved what it had to bring out in us. I love every time we get faced with that kind of adversity, what it forces our young women to do. How they link together, how they step up and how they make plays. That’s why this experience is so valuable.

Jordin Canada ignited in the second half to give the Bruins the win. Photo by William Johnson/T.G.Sportstv1.

We really did praise (Nirra Fields). Courtney Williams had 29 points, and it’s hard to say you played amazing defense, Nirra. But you forced her to shoot the ball 32 times to get those 29 points, and that’s the part that shows her incredible stamina. One of things I told Nirra in the locker room that she came to us defining herself as a scorer, and she has broadened her game to do so much more. Tonight we just needed her to be a defensive stopper more than anything else, and she stepped up and did that. She made Williams work for every one of those shots. She’s a really hard guard, one of the best guards in the country, no doubt about it, but Nirra really made her work for every one of those, and I thought it was a spectacular effort.

It feels like the next step in our building a sustained championship-level program. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Not just one good team but to have sustained excellence over an extended period of time. It definitely feels like the next right step for what they have earned. That’s been our theme all year long – earn what you want – don’t talk about it, don’t listen to rankings. Earn it. Habits will lead to relevance. Their habits have led to the next right step. Our eyes our very clearly focused, and we’re trying to do the next right step.

Jordin Canada and Kari Korver consult during a free throw shot. Photo by Percy Anderson.

Players make it happen. I think coaches get a little too much credit and a bit too much criticism. These players earned it. These players show up early and stay late. These players give to each other, they sacrifice. They made it happen; they earned it.

Cori Close

UCLA guard Jordin Canada gives South Florida guard Courtney Williams a hug after the Bruins beat the Bulls in the NCAA Tournament second round Monday. Photo by Nicc Jackson.
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