The season ended one weekend earlier than UCLA’s women would have preferred, but the Bruins weren’t devastated even in the moments immediately after losing the Kansas City Regional final Sunday against Mississippi State at the Sprint Center.
Making their second appearance in the Elite Eight and first since 1999, the third-seeded Bruins dug a 16-point halftime hole only to rally within six points on multiple occasions in the second half before succumbing 89-73 against the top-seeded Bulldogs.
“As much as it hurts, we can’t really overlook all the things that we’ve done for this program, and that’s why we came here,” said Jordin Canada, one of three seniors on the UCLA roster. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m just proud that I was able to start something, create something with the girls … that I played with, past and present.”
The Bruins (27-8) may not have reached the first Final Four in program history, but the seniors — including forward Monique Billings and guard Kelli Hayes — represent the winningest class in program history, going 97-44 during the last four seasons.
UCLA also boasts a WNIT championship in 2015 followed by three straight Sweet 16 appearances for the first time in program history during that span.
“They set a tone for what UCLA is all about,” Bruins coach Cori Close said. “… The wins are easy to trace — the record three straight Sweet 16s, first time in Elite Eight since 1999, on and on and on — but … I don’t think I could have asked any more of those three seniors about who they have become and how they’ve impacted people.”
Mississippi State, the Southeastern Conference regular-season champion and last year’s NCAA runner-up, simply proved too tough in the opening half on this particular night.
The Bulldogs’ usual suspects — senior Victoria Vivians, who finished with a game-high 24 points, and 6-foot-7 junior Teaira McCowan, who scored 23 with a game- and career-high 21 rebounds — did most of the damage.
But senior guard Blair Schaefer, the daughter of Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer, also delivered a pair of critical momentum-blunting daggers in the second half when the Bruins had momentum and perhaps were poised to surge in front.
“That kid has worked her tail off all her career for that moment,” Schaefer said. “To see her be able to answer the bell in that moment, it’s just really rewarding as a coach. It wouldn’t matter if she’s my daughter or not. … The one where they had cut it to six was a really big one, no doubt about it.”
Instead, a six-point margin proved impenetrable for UCLA, which trailed 42-26 at halftime after shooting 32% and getting beat 23-15 on the boards.
The Bruins, who trailed by six after the first quarter but missed their first eight shots in the second quarter as the Bulldogs pulled away, clawed within six points on six occasions in the fourth quarter.
Every time, Schaefer, Vivians or McCowan made a bucket to keep UCLA at arm’s length.
The game still remained in doubt at 79-73 when Canada — who closed her Bruins career with 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and only one turnover despite battling through an elbow injury for more than three quarters — made one of two free throws with 1:19 remaining.
McCowan, who registered her 27th double-double of the season and was chosen as the regional’s co-most outstanding player with Vivians, closed out the win by making six of seven free throws in the final minute as Mississippi State closed the game on a 10-0 run.
Canada — who also was selected all-regional, becoming the first player in program history to receive the honor twice — suffered a sprained left elbow during a first-quarter drive to the bucket when her arm got sandwiched between two Mississippi State defenders. She exits as UCLA’s all-time leader in assists (831) and second in career points (2,153).
Canada and the other seniors — particularly Billings, who scored 12 with six rebounds to be selected to the Kansas City All-Regional team and is second in career rebounds (1,159) — also leave behind a tough act to follow.
“It’s going to be hard to live up to [the legacy the seniors are leaving], because they’re three great players,” said junior Japreece Dean, who scored 16 points off the bench.