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UCLA women face top-seeded Mississippi State with their first Final Four a win away

UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close’s phone buzzed earlier this week with a voicemail from Nan Wooden, the daughter of legendary Bruins men’s coach John Wooden.

“I could get choked up talking about it,” Close said, her voice cracking noticeably, “but the best message I’ve gotten is Nan Wooden called me after our second-round game and left a message and said, ‘Daddy would have liked watching this team, and Daddy would have been proud of you.’”

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UCLA’s players were overjoyed by such praise.

“I came to UCLA to be a part of that history and that legacy [of basketball greatness], so to hear that his daughter said he would have loved to watch us play, that’s something you just smile about,” senior point guard Jordin Canada said.

Wooden led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships and 12 Final Fours, becoming the most successful and influential coach in basketball history. Close is among his many coaching disciples.

“Coach Wooden mentored me for 15 years,” she said Friday after UCLA knocked off Texas to reach the program’s second Elite Eight; its other was in 1999. “… My life has been deeply affected by him and his influence and his time.”

The UCLA men’s program owns NCAA records with 11 national championships and 18 Final Four appearances, but the women’s program is entering uncharted territory led by Close.

UCLA won the 1978 AIAW national title — a precursor to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which didn’t start until 1982 — but the program hasn’t advanced past the Elite Eight during the NCAA era.

The third-seeded Bruins (27-7) can change that and make history against top-seeded Mississippi State (35-1) at 4:30 p.m. PDT on Sunday (ESPN) with the Kansas City Regional championship on the line.

“It would be a dream come true,” said senior forward Monique Billings, who averages 15.4 points and a team-high 9.6 rebounds. “That’s something that you think about when you are a little girl watching basketball or, when you commit to a school, that’s something that always comes to mind.”

The Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Bulldogs, of course, represent a significant hurdle. Coach Vic Schaefer’s squad beat Connecticut during the Final Four last season.

Mississippi State boasts a balanced offense led by senior shooting guard Victoria Vivians, who averages 19.5 points a game, and senior point guard Morgan William, who dropped 41 points on Baylor in a regional final win last season.

Inside, the Bulldogs’ biggest threat against the Bruins — literally — will be 6-foot-7 junior center Teaira McCowan, who averages 18.0 points and 13.4 rebounds.

“They’ve got some great players,” UCLA junior guard Japreece Dean said. “McCowan will be a big focus, so we’ll have to be able to rebound … and execute our game plan.”

That means crashing the boards then getting out on the break, where UCLA’s depth and athleticism in the open court may generate some easy buckets against a Mississippi State defense that led all Power Five conference teams in scoring defense (55.6 points a game).

The Bruins also probably need another special performance from Canada, who dominated the Sweet 16 win with game highs of 22 points, eight assists and five steals.

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“She is the captain of the ship,” Close said of Canada. “We go as she goes, in so many ways.”

William called Canada “probably the best point guard that I will go against this year.”

But Canada can’t do it alone, so the Bruins will need to focus on the most central of John Wooden’s coaching principles.

“He built teams that … it was always about the unit more than about the individual, doing something linked together that you could never do by yourself,” Close said. “If we can represent UCLA, that’s what wearing those letters across our chest mean is that we represent something bigger than ourselves. In order to continue to walk in that legacy, you have to be concerned about how you link together more than what you’re doing on your own path.”

Mississippi State was the hungry team that built confidence and swagger round by round last season en route to the NCAA title game. Perhaps this year, it’s UCLA’s turn.

“I talked about that in film [Saturday],” Close said. “You have to have that deep hunger and belief that you want to keep playing with each other and for each other.”

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