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Jordin Canada has quietly become the driving force for UCLA's women's basketball team

The preamble to UCLA women's basketball victories is often the same breathless refrain centering on the point guard.

Whoa, Canada.

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Jordin Canada is a mesmerizing talent capable of both scoring in bunches while also ensuring the Bruins' box score is littered with teammates who also reach double figures in points.

But long before Canada became the Pac-12 Conference's all-time assists leader and a senior captain on a ninth-ranked team that will open the conference tournament Friday at KeyArena in Seattle, she faced a mandate from coaches.

Grow, Canada.

She had arrived in Westwood in the fall of 2014 as a quiet freshman who nevertheless struck one teammate as conceited because she didn't, well, know Canada.

"I had always thought she was cocky and big-headed and self-centered," senior forward Monique Billings, a former high school rival of Canada's, recalled this week, "and I got here and she was just quiet. I was like, oh, she just doesn't speak. Like, that's it. She's not cocky or rude or anything like that."

UCLA coach Cori Close knew Canada was unlikely to say anything untoward because she didn't say anything much at all. Close encouraged Canada to attend a Leaders in Training course led by assistant coach Shannon Perry.

Players worked on not just being more vocal but learning to assess situations and react accordingly. Maybe a coach was having a bad day and practice would be more challenging than usual, leading to some struggles among teammates.

"Whoever's not having a good practice," Canada said, reflecting upon her increased mindfulness, "how can we help them?"

The 5-foot-6 Canada is always happy to assist. A semifinalist for the Naismith Award that goes to the nation's top player, she became the first women's player in Pac-12 history to log 1,800 points and 700 assists. Canada broke the conference's assists record on Feb. 19 against Oregon with a baseline pass to Kelli Hayes; she now has 790 assists for her career.

"I'm not really a fancy passer," Canada said, "so I'm just trying to make the simple pass."

Canada's aggressiveness and slick ball-handling make her a dual threat equally adept at scoring and putting her teammates in position for easy baskets. She also tends to thrive this time of year going back to her freshman season at Los Angeles Windward High, when she made a three-point shot with less than a minute to play to help her team win a state championship.

As a freshman at UCLA, Canada scored 31 points during the Bruins' victory over West Virginia in the title game of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. She was the first player to climb the ladder inside the Charleston Civic Center to cut down the nets and doesn't hesitate when asked if she's visualized doing the same thing at a Final Four.

"Hopefully," she said, "we get to do that in the NCAA tournament and the Pac-12 tournament as well."

UCLA has made it to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal in consecutive seasons for the first time in the program's history, leaving it both grateful for its progress and wanting more.

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UCLA's Jordin Canada, left, looks for room to pass as Oregon State's Mikayla Pivec defends on March 4, 2017.
UCLA's Jordin Canada, left, looks for room to pass as Oregon State's Mikayla Pivec defends on March 4, 2017. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

The fourth-seeded Bruins (23-6) will take the next step in what they hope will be a lengthy postseason journey Friday at 2 p.m. in the Pac-12 tournament when they play fifth-seeded California. Top-seeded Oregon could be up next for UCLA in a semifinal of a tournament that features four teams ranked in the top 16 nationally.

Canada has modeled aspects of her game after some of her favorite NBA players. She admires Russell Westbrook's intensity and Rajon Rondo's well-rounded play that includes tenacious defense, something Canada has valued on the way to becoming a two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, including this season.

Her team-leading averages of 16.3 points, 7.1 assists and 3.1 steals per game can't begin to encapsulate her value to the Bruins, particularly in pivotal moments.

"When the team might be struggling or when we really need a bucket or when the shot clock's going down," Close said, "there's just this confidence about her that she can go make the necessary play."

It's just Canada doing what she does, giving herself and everybody else something to talk about.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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