That was fun while it lasted — which was about, what, seven minutes?
Three days after a euphoric victory described by the coach as a “monumental step forward” for the program, UCLA was visited by an opponent who placed that moment of glory in its proper context.
Tuesday night at Pauley Pavilion, Connecticut reminded the Bruins that in the world of women’s basketball, there’s UConn and there’s everyone else.
Ranked fifth in the country, UCLA is near the top of the “everyone else” category, but the figurative distance between the Bruins and top-ranked Huskies remains greater than the 4,000 miles that separates the two schools. UConn’s 78-60 victory wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated, as the visitors were ahead by as many as 29 points in the fourth quarter.
Notwithstanding UConn’s upset loss in the national semifinals last year, the NCAA women’s basketball field is still a one-horse race and the Huskies are Secretariat.
“We’re there, but we’re not there yet,” Bruins point guard Jordin Canada said.
There was some optimism around Westwood that maybe, just maybe, the Bruins could do the unthinkable. This looked as if could be a transformative week for the UCLA athletic program and not only because of the unprecedented eight-figure severance package for the departed football coach or the father of a player on the men’s basketball team baiting the nation’s commander-in-chief into a cartoonish war of words.
The women’s basketball team served notice it was heading somewhere. The Bruins were athletic. They were deep. They had experience in the likes of seniors Canada and Monique Billings, as well as junior Kennedy Burke. They also boasted of another nationally ranked recruiting class that increased the number of former McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster to a school-record five.
The Bruins registered their first victory over a top-three team in nine years when they defeated No. 3 Baylor on Saturday, 82-68. That followed consecutive trips to the Sweet 16.
And UConn wasn’t at full strength, as leading scorer Katie Lou Samuelson was sidelined with a foot injury.
The anticipation was enough to attract the third-largest crowd for a UCLA women’s basketball game at Pauley Pavilion, consisting of 9,263 fans, including Kobe Bryant, who was seated behind the west baseline with his wife and two of his daughters.
With three minutes remaining in the opening quarter, the Bruins were down only 12-11. That’s when UConn started to demonstrate the level of dominance it displayed while claiming every national championship from 2013 to 2016.
Crystal Dangerfield buried a three-pointer. Napheesa Collier, who scored a game-high 23 points, made consecutive shots. Kia Nurse stole the ball from Canada and scored.
At the end of the first quarter, the Huskies were ahead, 21-11. They went into halftime with a 40-29 edge.
The Bruins (3-1) never found their rhythm. UConn did to them what UCLA did to Baylor three days earlier.
“They dared us to shoot outside shots,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “We couldn’t make them.”
The Huskies (4-0) closed the third quarter with a 16-0 run and extended their advantage to 62-38.
“It starts with me,” said Canada, UCLA’s point guard and best player.
Canada entered the game as the Bruins’ co-leading scorer, at 17.3 points per game. She was electric in the win over Baylor, in which she had 20 points and 13 assists.
Her contributions in this game were mostly on the defensive end, where she had five steals. Canada scored 15 points, but missed 11 of 16 field-goal attempts, as UConn’s defense prevented her from penetrating the lane. She had four turnovers.
“I didn’t go a good job of setting the tone in the second half — the whole game, for that matter,” she said.
Particularly telling was how UConn didn’t allow the Bruins to score a single fastbreak point.
“We didn’t communicate in transition,” Canada said.
Close was upbeat. If her best player was willing to learn from this setback, Close said, the other players would too.
“UConn is a better team than us right now,” Close said. “But watch us learn from this.”
Close said the shortcomings UConn exposed were correctable. In her sixth season at UCLA, she has steadily built up this program, one year at a time. Her recruiting classes have grown progressively stronger. She has always taken the long view.
Even after the win over Baylor, she was quick to say, “I think you have to keep in mind this is November. We’re trying to be ready for March. We’re trying to do things then. This is a steppingstone.”
The Bruins wanted to know where they stood and they got what they asked for. Now, they have to complete their journey. They learned Tuesday the last few miles would be the hardest.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez