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It all starts with point guard Jordin Canada, who leads UCLA women against UConn

It all starts with point guard Jordin Canada, who leads UCLA women against UConn
UCLA guard Jordin Canada controls the ball against Penn during an NCAA tournament first-round game on Saturday. (Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

Jordin Canada drove through the lane and dished a no-look pass to her left, where forward Monique Billings stepped into the post and converted another basket.

UCLA fans marveled at how smooth it all looked, and Billings and teammates hollered in celebration.

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Canada's reaction? Hardly noticeable. She'd already picked up her assignment on defense.

"She's really shy, she's incredibly humble, she's sort of timid at first, but then she has this lioness roar that comes out of her in competitive situations," Coach Cori Close said about her 5-foot-6 point guard.

The Bruins' entire game plan begins with Canada, a junior from the Windward School who spurned interest from several powerhouse programs to stay home and help build UCLA into a national contender.

"This women's basketball team has never won a national championship here, and I think it would be very special," Canada said after practice this week.

"Even if we didn't end up winning a championship," she continued, pausing to bendg over and knock on the hardwood floor at Pauley Pavilion, "it's just about creating a legacy and creating that tradition of what UCLA basketball is about."

UCLA, the No. 4 seed in the Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional, cruised through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, routing No. 13 Boise State and No. 5 Texas A&M last weekend at Pauley. That earned the Bruins a shot at No. 1 seed and unbeaten-since-2014 Connecticut in a regional semifinal at Webster Bank Arena on Saturday.

Canada notched double-doubles, her eighth and ninth of the season, in the first- and second-round games. She scored 15 points and dished for 16 assists — the most ever by a Bruin in an NCAA tournament game — against the Broncos and followed with 12 points and 11 assists against the Aggies.

But Canada's impact this season has extended well beyond her team-leading averages of 17.8 points and 7.0 assists per game. Teammates challenged her to become a more vocal leader, and Close pushed her to evolve from a shooting guard into a floor general.

"Her job is to facilitate and make everybody else better," Close said. "Being a point guard for me is the hardest position on the floor because it's always her fault. … If Kari [Korver] misses a shot, it's her fault that she didn't give her a good enough pass. If [Monique] doesn't get a shot made, it means that you didn't lead her to the basket enough. … Or if we didn't get a good defensive possession it's because she didn't have enough urgency to start it off.

"That's something that I think she didn't like it, and it wasn't fair her first two years, and now she embraces that role."

Said Korver: "She used to be very quiet and we had to push her to step up and be a leader because you need your point guard to be a leader. She's really stepped into the role and owned it."

This is the first time the Bruins (25-8) have advanced to a regional semifinal for a second consecutive season. Last season, as a No. 3 seed, UCLA fell to No. 2 Texas in a Bridgeport Regional semifinal.

If UCLA pulls off an upset Saturday over Connecticut (34-0), which has won four consecutive NCAA titles and 109 consecutive games, Canada's legacy could be bigger than she ever imagined.

But she hesitated to respond when asked about the possibility of defeating the Huskies and advancing to a regional final, which would match the Bruins' best finish in the NCAA tournament, for the first time since 1999.

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"It does excite me, a little bit, but at the same time I can't be too excited because we haven't even played the game yet and you don't know what you're going to get," Canada said. "If we just focus on us, that can happen. But we just have to continue to stay focused and engaged on what we can do to get better."

Said Close: "She came here to do something that's never been done, to raise the program to a level it hasn't been before. … She has done exactly that, and she's not finished."

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry

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