No. 3 UCLA women’s fast pace is enough against No. 14 Hawaii in NCAA opener
Third-seeded UCLA overcame a modest offense against 14th-seeded Hawaii, easily winning its opener, 66-50, Saturday in an NCAA women’s basketball tournament game at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins (25-8) got 16 points and eight rebounds from senior guard Nirra Fields and 15 points on six-for-seven shooting from freshman guard Kennedy Burke. As one of the top four seeds in the Bridgeport Regional, the Bruins secured a home venue for the first two rounds and improved to 14-1 at Pauley this season.
“I was very pleased with how Nirra Fields and Kennedy Burke played,” Coach Cori Close said. “I thought they played very confident, very aggressive, rebounded the ball really well. I don’t think it was overall one of our best games in terms of our fluidity and teamwork and having a good rhythm about us, but what I do like is that when you have bad shooting nights and you don’t have rhythm, you find ways to win.”
UCLA finished far below its usual 74 points per game, tops in the Pac-12, but didn’t need a a lot of scoring the way Hawaii (21-11) shot. The Rainbow Wahine made 12 of 60 (20%) field-goal attempts. That negated their slight rebounding edge (45 to 42) and 14 extra free throws.
“I’m pleased that ... we just hunkered down,” Close said. “It just goes back to defense and getting stops.”
Both teams started slow. Then UCLA went into a full-court press, which forced a couple of turnovers. When the Rainbow Wahine broke the press, they were presented with wide-open jumpers. Senior guard Marissa Wimbley was the main beneficiary, knocking down a couple of three-point shots. Hawaii went ahead 11-10 with 4:25 in first quarter, but UCLA recovered and regained the lead.
The Bruins played tenacious defense in the second quarter and went up by double-digits for the first time after Canada slipped a bounce pass inside to Billings for an easy two points. The Rainbow Wahine were relegated to passing around the perimeter and struggled to even get a shot up — they were just two-for-seven in the quarter, after going six for 21 in the opening 10 minutes. They put up seven points in the final 1:28 but UCLA was still ahead 37-25 at the half.
“They’re long, they’re quick, they’re great athletes,” Hawaii Coach Laura Beeman said of the Bruins. “They cover ground very, very quickly.”
Fields gave UCLA a boost in the second half, accounting for nine of her team’s 13 points in the third quarter alone. She was aggressive driving the lane, especially on a couple of broken plays with the shot clock winding down. Hawaii continued to shoot poorly, making one field goal in the third quarter while barely sustaining its chances with free throws.
For most of the game, the Bruins pushed the tempo, putting up attempts within a few seconds of crossing half court. By the fourth quarter, the Rainbow Wahine were caught up trying to match their opponents’ pace, which benefited UCLA in closing out the victory.
“It really just starts with the defensive end,” Fields said. “We’re a great running team, a great transition team, and when we get stops and push the ball, it makes the offense that much easier.”
In her first NCAA tournament appearance, sophomore guard Jordin Canada added 10 points and five assists, though she was three for 11 from the floor.
“I sort of like that, because it really forced some people to do some other things,” Close said. “She had to be forced to just run the team. A lot of the times, she’s been putting the team on her back and really scoring … today she needed to do it differently.”
Senior forward Kacy Swain missed her sixth consecutive game because of a knee injury and sophomore Lajahna Drummer started in her place, contributing nine points before fouling out. Hawaii was led by sophomore Megan Huff, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The Bruins have won the opening game in their previous five NCAA tournament appearances, but are 0-5 in the next round. They improved to 9-2 this season against nonconference opponents.
“Not everything is going to be easy,” Close said. “This tournament is just going to get harder and harder and harder. We have to be willing to stay calm through those ups and downs.”
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