With the clock in her head ticking down the final seconds of the first quarter, UCLA senior point guard Jordin Canada waited until the last possible moment before whipping a pass to wide-open teammate Lajahna Drummer, whose corner three-pointer at the buzzer highlighted a big run that started the Bruins on their way to a 71-60 triumph over American University on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament at Pauley Pavilion.
“Being aggressive — that’s what started the [25-3] run and that’s who we are,” Canada said. “We started out slow and our coach got into us. We picked it up, started pressing them and got our break going.”
For the first five and a half minutes, the 14th-seeded Eagles controlled the pace, limited UCLA to one shot per possession and built a lead. Showing why she is regarded as one of the best players in the country at her position, Canada stole the ball and drove for a tying layup, then hit a three-pointer. The former L.A. Windward star opened the second quarter with another shot from long distance to make it an 18-point lead and finished with 10 points, 11 assists and three steals.
"I give a lot of credit to American — they won 26 games for a reason," Bruins coach Cori Close said. "They know their identity and they play to it consistently. As for us, I'm excited we earned one more opportunity to play. That's what it's all about."
Forward Monique Billings finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Kennedy Burke added 15 points for the ninth-ranked and third-seeded Bruins (25-7), who won for the 14th time in 17 games and improved to 16-14 in the NCAA tournament.
"As the game went on, the key was finding easier shots and getting good looks," Billings said. "When they had three people guarding me it opened up opportunities for other players."
American (26-7) closed to within 45-41 at the 4:30 mark of the third quarter, but that was as close as the Eagles could get in the second half. Forward Cecily Carl had 22 points and 10 rebounds, junior guard Elina Koskimies had 13 points and seven rebounds and senior point guard Maria Liddane added 12 points and six assists for the Patriot League champions from Washington D.C., making their second NCAA appearance and facing UCLA for the first time.
"This wasn't our best game … it was messy, especially on the defensive end," Burke said. "Whether it's on a back screen or a pin down, we need to communicate better. It's more a mental adjustment than a physical one."
Despite a distinct size disadvantage, American out-rebounded UCLA 36-33 and had 17 second-chance points to the Bruins' 12. UCLA, which entered ranked fifth nationally and first in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding, averaging 16.6 per game, had 34 points in the paint to the Eagles' 22 and made eight of 15 three-point attempts.
"Rebounding is something we've struggled with all season, so the fact that we had three more than a super team like UCLA shows what we can do when we put our minds to it," Carl said. "They've got a lot of height and athleticism, but we boxed out on every possession."
The Bruins can advance to their third straight Sweet 16 with a win against No. 11 Creighton on Monday at 6 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA's highest finish in 15 NCAA tournament trips is the Elite Eight in 1999.
To get that far, they'll have to step it up.
"We missed 11 layups in the first half and we had way too many mental errors," said Close, in her seventh season in Westwood. "I challenged my team in the fourth quarter that you cannot take this for granted. At this level your best players are going to be too well-scouted, so you're going to have to make one more pass, one more ball reversal. You need contributions from a lot of different players and we had that. We know what we're going to get from Jordin and Monique, but everyone else has to be ready when their number is called."