UCLA Women's Basketball at the Junkanoo Jam
Opponent: Louisiana Tach (2-1)
When: 10:00 AM PST, Friday, November 27, 2015
Where: St. Georges High School Gym, Freeport, Bahamas
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: Junkanoo Jam Live Stream
Live Stats: None
The Bruins are in the Bahamas today for the first game of the Junkanoo Jam, a four-team tournament that includes #3 Notre Dame. If the Bruins can beat today's opponent, Louisiana Tech (2-1), they'll likely face Notre Dame in the championship game of the tournament tomorrow. If that happens, it will be UCLA's second game against a top-5 team in less than a week. But first the Bruins have to beat the Lady Techsters.
Like Steve Alford's team, Coach Close's squad enters their Thanksgiving week tournament with a 2-1 record. Unlike their male counterparts, our women's team opened their season with a genuinely challenging schedule with two games against opponents in the top-40 and a third game against #2 South Carolina. And while UCLA men's basketball steadily drifts away from the top-25 in national rankings, UCLA women's basketball has inched upwards each week; the Bruins enter the Junkanoo Jam as the 28th-ranked team in both the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
More importantly, the Bruins kept up with an awfully good South Carolina team on Sunday until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, eventually losing 68-65. It would be wrong to consider the Bruins' performance a moral victory, because frankly, UCLA just wasn't quite good enough down the stretch. On the other hand, there was a lot to like about the way the Bruins went about their work: they took care of the ball, played solid defense, and showed a maturity that was lacking for most of last season.
There was plenty of room for improvement, though. The Bruins were out-rebounded 45-31--a consequence of not boxing out well enough when they played zone. The Bruins didn't shoot well enough either; UCLA shot 35.9% from the field, 22.2% from three, and 60.0% from the line. South Carolina is a very good defensive team, which explains in part UCLA's shooting woes from the field, but there's no excuse for shooting free throws so poorly. If the Bruins had shot 75% from the charity stripe, they would have won. You have to take advantage of your opportunities when you play elite opponents.
When of the positives from Sunday was the play of Monique Billings. She still needs a lot of work on the offensive end, but she's taken a big step forward from last season. She's easily the Bruins best interior defender and rebounder, and she'll be needed for substantial minutes while Lajahna Drummer is recovering from injury and promising freshman Ashley Hearn adapts to collegiate basketball.
Nirra Fields is still the leader of the team, but Jordin Canada has become the irreplaceable player. Canada produced another 20+ point performance on Sunday and added six steals and five assists. This shot was one of the highlights of the game:
Sophomore Kelli Hayes and freshman Kennedy Burke continue to turn in impressive performances coming off the bench. Both played tenacious defense, and Burke in particular has given the Bruins a much-needed perimeter scoring threat.
Louisiana Tech is one of the most programs in women's basketball history. Tyler Summitt, the son of Hall of Fame Coach Pat Summitt, is in his second year in charge of the program. Last season, the Lady Techsters finished 16-15, their first winning record in three seasons. Louisiana Tech women's basketball seems to be on its way back, although it's definitely premature to proclaim them an NCAA Tournament-worthy team. The Lady Techsters opened the season with a 79-65 loss to Wisconsin, and then followed with a couple of easy wins against low-level competition: a 76-40 win over Loyola-New Orleans (NAIA) and a 76-44 victory against Stephen F. Austin. The Lady Techsters may be well-coached, but that's not the kind of schedule that will have them prepared to play against quality opponents.
Lousiana Tech isn't a big team. The Lady Techsters have just one player over 6'2", and she averages less than 20 minutes/game. However, since the Bruins run so much of their offense through their guards, I'm not convinced that UCLA will be able to take advantage of its size advantage on offense.
Redshirt junior Brooke Pumroy, a transfer from Marquette, is the Lady Techsters' leading scorer. She's shooting .474 from behind the arc, so the Bruins will probably be forced to play more man-to-man defense than they did against South Carolina. However, Pumroy is just 5'9", so the Bruins will be able to throw an assortment of defenders at her, though it probably makes sense to assign Nirra Fields to her at the outset.
This is a game that the Bruins really need to win if the program is going to take a big step forward after a disappointing 2014-15 campaign. UCLA has the talent to be a top-25 team this year. With a strong Pac-12 field to navigate in conference play, the Bruins need to pick up wins and confidence early.