UCLA working quickly to fill legendary shoes

Lauryn Miller and the rest of the UCLA Bruins are trying to grow fast after losing two of the program's best players. Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics.
Lauryn Miller and the rest of the UCLA Bruins are trying to grow fast after losing two of the program’s best players. Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

Every program struggles when its best players graduate. But replacing two of the best in school and Pac-12 history? That’s a tall order.

Welcome to UCLA’s 2018-2019 season, where the reconfigured squad of young Bruins are fast working to find ways to fill the gigantic shoes of greats Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.

As seniors, the duo scored a combined 32.3 points per game. Canada also dished 7.1 assists, grabbed 3.7 rebounds and stole the ball 3.3 times, while Billings averaged 9.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Canada ended her career as the Pac-12 assists leader, and Billings became UCLA’s career blocks leader. Both rank in the top 10 in school scoring history, and Canada was last year’s Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

This year’s active roster includes three sophomores and six freshmen. And in their season opener at Loyola Marymount University last week, they stumbled. When the Lions went on a run and padded their lead to double-digits, UCLA was slow to respond. When they finally mounted a comeback it wasn’t quite enough, and LMU held them off, 69-63.

Sunday’s home opener against a tough Rice team was a very different game, as both the Bruins and the Owls locked each other down on defense to make for a low-scoring 30-24 UCLA lead at halftime. A Lauryn Miller-lead run in the third quarter sent the hosts on a tear, and they inflated their lead to 10 points. Rice was able to get only as close as five in the final frame, as the Bruins won, 59-50. Miller, Lindsey Corsaro and Japreece Dean all scored in double figures.

Against the Owls, UCLA was just one short of their turnover total at LMU, with 17, and they had 14 fewer rebounds than they did in their loss. But coach Cori Close said she is encouraged by the evolution the Bruins showed between games.

“We grew in significant ways,” Close said. “We played with much more passion (against Rice). When things didn’t go our way, we didn’t really respond well at LMU. Tonight, things didn’t go our way early, either: we got in foul trouble, we weren’t in rhythm……but instead of snowballing, we controlled our response and got better, and I think that shows a lot of growth.”

Close said the Bruins are in the process of finding their new identity.

“I thought we were better prepared (for Rice) – even the warmups were better,” she said. “That’s all I care about is growth and prepare, growth and prepare. Through the course of the season, I do believe we’re going to grow into being a very good basketball team, but we’re not there yet.”

As much as Canada and Billings scored for UCLA in their careers, Close said the team feels their absence more on the other end of the court.

“Everyone wants to talk to me about missing Jordin and Monique on the offensive end, but that’s not where I miss them the most,” Close said. “Defensively, we don’t have a true rim protector; Monique was the leading shot blocker in UCLA history. Jordin Canada was two-time (defensive) player of the year in the conference. Do I think we’re going to grow into be a really great defensive team? Yes, and we must.”

The Bruins were hampered by injuries to begin the year, as senior Lajahna Drummer, redshirt freshman Kayla Owens, sophomore Chantel Horvat and junior Ally Robenblum sat out the first game with injuries. Drummer – one of only four seniors – and Owens returned against Rice, and Horvat might be activated soon, according to a team spokesperson.

But last year’s stellar freshman class – Miller, Horvat and Michaela Onyenwere – will have to take the experience they gained from UCLA’s Elite Eight trip and help foster the team’s rapid learning curve, along with the seniors.

Close said that maturity is needed.

“We can get tougher,” she said. “We play pretty hard, but we’ve got to learn to think and plan.”

The Bruins host No. 14 Georgia Wednesday, and Close said the team would spend the two days between games preparing as well as they did for Rice.

“Georgia is a great team, but any team can be upset,” Close said. “Why not us?”