Opponent: CSU Bakersfield
When: 12:15 PM PST, Saturday, November 28, 2015
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: UCLA Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
Five games into the season, #24 UCLA (3-2) finally gets its first cupcake when CSU Bakersfield (1-6) takes the court in Pauley Pavilion this afternoon.
It's tempting to write off the Roadrunners as a dreadfully weak team. Their RPI ranking is 316th. Their sole win was a 90-88 overtime victory over San Jose State. They've lost four straight since then, including a 57-52 loss to Fresno State on Wednesday. The record doesn't lie--Bakersfield hasn't been good so far this season.
But a closer look suggests that the Roadrunners haven't been pushovers. Two of their defeats have been to ranked teams: a 90-71 loss to #2 South Carolina, and a 60-47 loss to #16 Arizona State. Three of their other losses have been by six points or less. Although Bakersfield has lost half a dozen games, they've been competitive most of them.
On top of that, the Roadrunners are familiar with the Bruins and Pauley Pavilion since the two teams played in the first round of last season's WNIT. UCLA won that contest 70-54, and the teams have gone in different directions since then. The Bruins went on to win the WNIT title and have made a strong start to their 2015-16 campaign, while the Roadrunners have developed a habit of losing.
Close But No Cigar: UCLA Falls Short in the Junkanoo Jam Tournament
After a solid 68-57 victory over Louisiana Tech in the tournament opener, the Bruins advanced to the tournament championship game to play #3 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish blitzed the Bruins in the first quarter, taking a 24-13 lead into the first break, but UCLA chipped away at the lead over the next three quarters. At halftime, the Bruins trailing by 10 (37-27), and after three quarters, UCLA had pulled to within seven at 56-49.
Then, with just 4.3 seconds remaining in regulation, Jordin Canada went coast-to-coast to pull the Bruins even at 76-all. Unfortunately, the Bruins didn't fare well in regulation, as foul trouble eventually caught up with them. UCLA finished the game without three of their starters (Canada, Nirra Fields, and Kacy Swain), and that proved too much for the Bruins to overcome. The final score was Notre Dame 92, UCLA 84 (OT), but as they'd done against #2 South Carolina the previous week, the Bruins showed that they could compete with the nation's elite teams. That's a big step forward from the 2014-15 season.
The good news for UCLA is that Coach Close is getting scoring from a larger group of players this year. Against Notre Dame, five Bruins managed double digits in points: Nirra Fields (18), Monique Billings (18), Kennedy Burke (16), Jordin Canada (12) and Kacy Swain (10). Billings led the Bruins with 13 boards, and Canada dished 8 assists with just one turnover.
There was a big dose of bad news too, however. First, Nirra Fields is a terrific player, but her shot selection needs improvement. Against the Fighting Irish, Fields took nearly a third of UCLA's shots, and frankly, her shooting percentage doesn't justify that many shots. Also, considering how good she is at attacking the basket, Fields must improve her free throw shooting; 57% isn't good enough for a player that tends to have the ball in her hands with the game on the line.
Second, the absence of Lajahna Drummer (due to injury) is particularly noticeable since freshman forward Ashley Hearn has started her collegiate career slowly. I'm hoping that Hearn will get untracked tonight against Bakersfield--the Bruins really need her rebounding and defense in order to be competitive against top-notch opponents.
Lastly, the Bruins have to improve their discipline. This was a huge issue that held UCLA back last year, and although there has been improvement, there are still issues with the Bruins' tendency to pick up cheap fouls and to turn the ball over too readily. Against Notre Dame, the Bruins had more turnovers than assists and committed 50% more fouls. Over the course of the first 40 minutes, Notre Dame shot 12 more free throws that the Bruins, and perhaps more than anything else, that's what kept UCLA from pulling off the upset.
Scouting the Roadrunners
As you might expect, the Roadrunners aren't a big team, but they have a strong group in the frontcourt. Senior forward Batabe Zempare (6'2") leads Bakersfield in scoring (13.6 points/game) and rebounding (11.4 boards/game). She is not a shot blocker though, which is good news for Canada and Fields since both are good at beating their defender and getting into the lane.
Redshirt junior Erika Williams (6'0") is the only other Roadrunner to average double-digits in scoring (10.0 points/game), and she's the team's second best rebounder at 4 per game. Both Zempare and Williams are 70+% from the charity stripe, so the Bruins will have to be careful to avoid getting in foul trouble inside. Williams is also the Roadrunner's best three-point shooter.
Senior point guard Alyssa Shannon (5'2") is small but quick. She'll have a tough time against Jordin Canada, though Canada will have to be smart about forcing Shannon to shoot from the perimeter rather than letting her drive into the lane where she's good at drawing fouls. Shannon shoots just 30.8% from the field and 21.4% from beyond the arc, but is deadly from the line (84.8%).
Freshman Addi Walters (5'9") is the only other Roadrunner starter with the potential to hurt the Bruins with her perimeter shooting. However, she hasn't been very efficient from distance so far this season (31.7%).
Based on last season's WNIT contest, Bakersfield likes to run a lot of ball screens on the perimeter. Again, this shouldn't be a problem for UCLA's guards if they can stay away from committing cheap fouls--the Roadrunners best chance to score against UCLA is from the free throw line.
Finally, the Bruins were able to fast break a lot in last year's game, but they were let down by turnovers in transition. If the Bruins can get into a running game and take care of the ball, this game could easily become a blowout.
What to Expect
I've been impressed by the team's maturation this season. The 2015-16 Bruins are playing smarter, tougher basketball, and their confidence has grown considerably. If Coach Close is able to address the problems discussed above, this team can compete for the conference title. Considering how strong the Pac-12 is this season, that's saying a lot.
If UCLA comes out with energy and focus, the Bruins should win by 15 points or more. The only way the Bruins can lose this game is if they are sloppy with ball and get into deep foul trouble. However, I think that's a very unlikely scenario today.