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The formation of legends: girls to women

Monique Billings, Kelli Hayes and Jordin Canada are honored on Senior Day Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. Photo by Don Liebig/ASUCLA.
Monique Billings, Kelli Hayes and Jordin Canada are honored on Senior Day Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. Photo by Don Liebig/ASUCLA.

They have been two of the biggest impact players to come through UCLA basketball. But down to the last regular-season games of their collegiate careers, Jordin Canada and Monique Billings still found ways to amaze.

Thursday against Colorado, Canada drove into the lane and pulled up to make what looked like a pass……before she turned away from her faked-out defender to lay the ball up and in. Two days later Canada stood at the top of the same lane and did some “shake and bake” to get past Utah’s point guard. But instead of going in for a regular layup, she abruptly switched to her left hand to serve up the bucket from underneath, on the other side.

Billings still makes her leaping rebounds look like ballet, and those same long legs get her up the court faster than most players. But lately she has added 50 percent or better shooting, making her even more difficult to guard.

Canada is known for making baskets as she falls to the ground. She is fearless and will do anything to win, including driving into the paint against post players, outrebounding many who are taller than her, and streaking up the court like a bolt of lightening to score. Most of the time it seems like she should be wearing a cape over her uniform.

Billings can change the direction her body is spinning in mid-jump, grabs rebounds at any angle, and she has a wingspan that intimidates opponents so much on defense that they usually just look away, or look to pass quickly. She once startled an athlete by getting from baseline to half court to defend her in four long running steps.

Bruin fans and media have been spoiled for the last four years. For us, seeing basketball played at its highest level by two elites is an every-game thing. We have been blessed. And the fact that Canada and Billings continue to evolve late into their final season is a testament to their work ethic and passion for the game – two characteristics that have not faltered or faded in either of them during their time in Westwood.

I have written about Canada, Billings and both of them together since they arrived at UCLA. So have other media. Their stories – both individually and as part of the Bruins’ No. 1 recruiting class of 2014 – are well-known at this point.

Jordin Canada. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Jordin Canada. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Canada is a gifted point guard who was being scouted for high schools by fifth grade. A McDonald’s All-American, she was ranked fourth in her class and first in her position. She wanted to transfer from UCLA after the first year after fellow freshman Recee’ Caldwell opted to do the same. But Canada stayed and worked on not only her game, but becoming more outgoing. She emerged in her junior season as a vocal, premiere floor general.

Billings came to Westwood long on speed and hops and short on technical skills. But her relentless drive and hunger to improve compelled her to work on her game, and by her second year she was a starter. She emerged as one of the country’s best post players last season. Both she and Canada are projected to be first-round WNBA Draft picks in April.

Off the court, all three Bruin seniors are just as stellar.

Team co-captain Kelli Hayes has been “the glue” of the team for a while now. She brings her teammates together, helps smooth any turbulence, is quick with jokes and performs countless thoughtful deeds for everyone in the locker room.

Kelli Hayes is double-teamed. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Before a recent home game, players were leaving the court after shootaround when Hayes came up behind, and then between Canada and Billings. She slipped her arms around each of her teammates’ waists and in seconds had both of them nodding and laughing, their serious game faces gone for the moment.

“She’s so the glue,” a staffer sitting nearby watching the scene with me said.

Hayes’ family has made numerous road trips from the Bay Area this year for her finale. The parents of Canada and Billings never miss a game. And in meeting all of the families, it is easy to see why the athletes are as solid as they are.

All three are great students, all work hard and all have big dreams for basketball and beyond. They all care about and respect others, and they each want to make a difference. As an educator who has seen more apathy, indifference, ignorance and hostility in young people than I care to discuss, these young women are truly uplifting.

“It’s great to hear these parents telling you that you’ve inspired their daughters,” a woman told the seniors at a recent social to honor them. “But I’m old enough to maybe be your grandmother, and I want you to know that you inspire me.”

I’m not sure if the three fully understood what the woman said to them. But someday they will.

It’s hard not to be inspired – whomever you are – when you see Canada fight to the death for a loose ball, watch it roll out of bounds anyway, scream in frustration. And then lay there still for just a second, collect herself and get up with her steel face back on.

It’s hard not to be inspired – whomever you are – when you see Billings talking to her teammates all the way up and down the court. Shouting encouragement, calling a screen, telling them to keep the intensity up – all while jumping out of the gym and sprinting.

It’s hard not to be inspired – whomever you are – when you see Hayes initiate warmups with a light joke, and keep things moving with her voice. And then there’s her silky three-point shots.

I think one of the reasons I love college basketball so much is watching how athletes come in as kids and leave as women. Canada has shed much of her shyness; the confidence of Billings has grown exponentially; and Hayes is more loose and free to be herself. Growth is a beautiful thing.

Legacies are gorgeous, too.

Canada finished the regular season with 2,031 career points, which is third on UCLA’s all-time list. Billings has 1,661, and is 24 points away from tying Ann Meyers for the tenth spot.

Last week Canada broke the 26-year-old Pac-12 career assists record. She ended the season with 790, smashing the previous school record. She will have more than 800 by the end of this weekend’s Pac-12 Tournament. Canada is also three steals away from tying Nikki Blue for third place in the Bruin record book.

Monique Billings. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Billings broke the program mark for blocks last month, and now has 218 for her career. She is ranked third in the rebound category, with 1,109.

In 2016 they helped guide the Bruins to their first Sweet 16 in 17 years, and last season they went back again. They have been ranked in the top 15 for all of 2017-2018,

Whatever happens in the NCAA Tournament in coming weeks, both Canada and Billings have earned their spots on the wall full of pictures of past greats at Pauley Pavilion. They are two of the best to ever come through the program.

I wasn’t sad on Senior Day this past Saturday, as I anticipated I would be. I am very happy to see each young woman move on to the next phase of her life, and assassinate it. But I am profoundly grateful to have been here to witness the 2014-2018 part of it.

Legends don’t come around too often.

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