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UCLA Shoots for the WNIT Title Against WVU - Preview and Game Thread

The UCLA women's basketball team is in Charleston today for the WNIT Championship game against West Virginia. After beating a relatively small but skilled Michigan team in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, can the Bruins defeat the tall and athletic Mountaineers?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: West Virginia (23-14)

When: Saturday, April 4, 12:05 PM PDT

Where: Charleston Civic Center, Charleston, West Virginia

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Resources: Official PreviewGame Notes

The UCLA women's basketball team is in Charleston today for the WNIT championship game. The Bruins advanced to the final after holding on to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, 69-65. The Bruins' opponent today is West Virginia. The Mountaineers needed overtime to get past Temple 66-58 in the other semifinal.

As I've written previously, I'm not a fan of consolation tournaments. Although I'm pleased to see the Bruins and Coach Close enjoying success in the WNIT, what I'm most anxious to see is our women's basketball team competing for bigger prizes in the future. Let's hope that our participation and success in the WNIT puts the program on the path to sustained excellence, and that in the following years, we're rooting for our team as it advances through the NCAA tournament field.

The Bruins Hold On to Defeat the Wolverines

UCLA needed to clear a tough hurdle to qualify for the WNIT final: a road game against the Michigan Wolverines. The Bruins started the game brightly, and troubled the Wolverines with an aggressive man defense. However, the Wolverines stayed in touch through the first 8 minutes, and then used a series of offensive rebounds and UCLA turnovers to go on a 15-3 run. With just under 7 minutes remaining in the first half, UCLA trailed by eight.

The Bruins responded with a 7-0 run to pull within a point, and with a minute and a half left in the first, UCLA knotted the game when Lajahna Drummer scored on a layup. Thirty seconds later, the Bruins had reclaimed the lead on a three-pointer by Kari Korver. At halftime, UCLA was clinging to a 32-31 lead.

The second half was tight for the entire 20 minutes. With just under 4 and a half minutes on the clock, Korver knocked down another three to give UCLA its biggest lead of the game, 63-58.

But UCLA wobbled at this point, letting Michigan claw its way back into the game by sending the Wolverines to the line on successive possessions. Meanwhile, the Bruins suddenly fell into a mini-scoring drought when they committed three straight turnovers. With 1:39 left in the contest, the Wolverines had pulled even on a pair of free throws by Shannon Smith.

Nirra Fields stepped up big on the next possession. With the Bruins offense going nowhere, Fields got a step on her defender and canned a long jumper with the shot clock about to expire. UCLA led by two, 65-63.

The Wolverines went to their top scorer on their next possession, but she missed a three, and Fields hauled in the rebound. Michigan started fouling, and after four fouls and over thirty seconds later, Jordin Canada was at the free throw line. Canada knocked down both to extend the Bruins' lead to four, 67-63.

UCLA gave Michigan another chance to close the gap when Smith was fouled as she attempted a three-pointer. Smith missed her first free throw but hit the next two to half the UCLA lead with five seconds left. But the Bruins were able to inbound the ball to Jordin Canada, and when Canada was fouled again, she knocked down two more free throws to seal the 69-65 victory for UCLA.

Korver led the Bruins in scoring with 21, hitting five of seven from long range. Canada chipped in with 14 points, six rebounds and nine assists in one of her most assured performances of the season. Fields contributed 13 points and five boards. Corinne Costa added five blocks.

Although the Bruins played a more disciplined game than usual, they still committed 14 turnovers. They'll need to cut down on that number if they are going to beat WVU in what will likely be a slower paced game.

Scouting the Bruins

As I noted in the WNIT semifinal preview, Coach Cori Close has a young and talented squad that features a group of seven true freshman which comprises the nation's top recruiting class. The Bruins have 10 players who average 10 or more minutes per game, and Coach Close is flexible with her starting lineups and her substitution patterns. While I find some of her personnel decisions baffling at times, I applaud Coach Close for her commitment to giving her players the opportunities that they've earned. Coach Close understands that the long term benefits of developing a deep bench outweigh the short term costs.

Senior Corinne Costa (6'4") will start along the front line; she averages about 5 points and 5 rebounds a game. On offense, she's best when facing the basket, and on defense, she relies on positioning rather than athleticism. Against Michigan, Costa did a credible job of containing Cyesha Goree, which is not an easy task.

Although junior Kacy Swain (6'3") often starts next to Costa, she didn't play against the Wolverines, and I suspect that she won't be available today either. Senior Luiana Livulo (6'3") will likely start in Swain's place and be asked to play solid interior defense and rebound against the Mountaineers' tall front line.

The two most athletic members of UCLA's front court are freshmen Monique Billings (6'4") and Lajahna Drummer (6'1"). Both are long and lean, and both have a bit of rawness to their game. Billings is particularly fun to watch. She's a shot-blocker and an intimidating presence on defense. She can also collect a rebound and drive the length of the court. Billings has a back-to-the-basket game, and although she has decent touch on her shots, she needs to improve her footwork and her range of offensive moves.

Drummer may be raw, but she makes big contributions whenever she's on the court. Against Michigan, she made a couple of nice cuts to the rim to score a pair of easy baskets. However, she really struggles from the free throw line, so it's important that Coach Close manage her time properly so that Drummer isn't going to the charity stripe in the closing minutes of a close game.

Coach Close allots playing time fairly evenly among her bigs; only Costa averages more than 17 minutes per game.

All-Pac-12 junior Nirra Fields (5'9") starts in the backcourt. She's the Bruins' leading scorer (15.5 ppg) and rebounder (5.5 rpg). Fields is a remarkably versatile scorer. She can hit the three, drive and pull up for a jumper, or take the ball to the rim. She doesn't hesitate to finish against two defenders on a fast break, but her aggression leads to some poor decision-making at times. That said, she showed real maturity at the offensive end against Michigan. And as she proved again in the Michigan game, she's a clutch scorer. Her jumper with a minute left in the game ended a mini-scoring drought for the Bruins and gave UCLA a lead that it held the rest of the game.

Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Jordin Canada (5'6") starts at the point. She's ultra-quick, nearly impossible to slow down in the open court, and relentless on defense. Although Canada is the Bruins' second-leading scorer (11.2 ppg), she's not much of a scoring threat from the perimeter. However, against the Wolverines, Canada showed the versatility of her offensive game: she repeatedly beat her defender and looked confident pulling up for jumpers or taking it to the basket. For much of the season, Jordin has tended to play at full speed all of the time, and her decision-making has suffered as a result. However, in the last two games, Jordin's decision-making has been much improved. That said, although she leads the team in assists, her assist-to-turnover ratio for the season is just 1.2.

Sophomore Kari Korver (5'9") is the third backcourt starter. She's far and away the best three-point shooter for UCLA, and she's also an efficient scorer inside the arc, averaging just under 10 points per game. Against Michigan, Korver demonstrated how important she is for the Bruins as she knocked down five of seven three-pointers. Korver struggled a bit defensively against the Wolverines' quick guards in the semis; against the Mountaineers, Korver will be matched up against a taller, stronger opponent, so it's crucial that she produce a tough defensive effort focused on rebounding.

Freshman Kelli Hayes (6'0") started earning more playing time midway through the season--partly due to the season-ending injury to Recee' Caldwell--and she's become an important bench player for Coach Close. She will be needed today for her size and athleticism, and to a lesser extent, for her perimeter shooting. Senior Madeline Poteet (5'8") has been the other beneficiary of playing time since Caldwell's injury. Poteet provides a good alternative to Canada; she's more cautious with the ball, manages the pace of the game better, and represents a scoring threat from the perimeter. Redshirt freshman Paulina Hersler (6'3") may see additional playing time today if Swain is still unavailable. Hersler's combination of size and perimeter scoring ability could present a big matchup problem for WVU.

As I wrote in my semifinal preview, UCLA is a team in need of a tough, heady floor leader. The Bruins have been plagued by turnovers, inconsistent shot selection, and poor game management all season. The dilemma for Coach Close is that an open, fast-paced game suits this deep squad of athletic players, but at the same time, it makes them more vulnerable to their flaws. However, against Michigan, the Bruins displayed discipline that had been absent for much of the regular season. Let's hope that the Bruins can produce another disciplined performance against WVU.

Scouting the Mountaineers

West Virginia (23-14) represents a substantially different challenge for the Bruins than they faced in the semifinal against Michigan. Like the Wolverines, the Mountaineers are an experienced group, but that's about the only similarity. The Mountaineers have size in the backcourt and along the frontline. They rely fairly heavily on two players for a big chunk of their scoring, and as a team, West Virginia is relatively poor at perimeter shooting and at converting free throws.

Senior Linda Stepney (5'7") plays the point and averages nearly 35 minutes per game. She provides steady ball handling, but not much in the way of scoring (6.3 ppg). The other guard is 6'1" junior Bria Holmes, who leads the team in minutes per game (36.5) and scoring (19.0 ppg). Holmes isn't shy about shooting, and even though she's not very accurate from behind the arc, she's still launched over 200 three-point attempts. She's not a good free throw shooter either at 62%. The Mountaineers' other big scorer is 6'1" senior forward Averee Fields. Fields averages 35.5 minutes, 13.7 points, and 6.9 rebounds per game.

Sophomore Bre McDonald (6'0") starts at the other forward spot. She's a volume shooter, yet she averages just 6.9 ppg, and like Holmes, isn't particularly good from three-point range or at the charity stripe. The final starter is redshirt sophomore Lanay Montgomery. At 6'5", Montgomery is an imposing defender and a strong rebounder. Against Temple in the other WNIT semifinal, Montgomery pulled down 24 rebounds and swatted eight shots in 42 minutes of action.

The Mountaineers have two main contributors off the bench. Junior guard Jessica Morton (5'10") averages about 15 minutes and five and a half points per game. She is the best three-point shooter of this group. Redshirt freshman Teana Muldrow (6'1") is the primary frontcourt substitute and is the team's third leading scorer at 7.0 ppg.

Offensively, the Mountaineers are fairly similar to the Bruins. They tend to be a bit sloppy with the ball, suffer from poor shot selection at times, and as a team, they struggle from the free throw line. However, the Mountaineers have a superior defensive record, in large part because they do a much better job than the Bruins of keeping opponents from getting second shots. Among other things, this means that UCLA has to have better shot selection today.

West Virginia cruised through the opening rounds of the WNIT. The Mountaineers opened with an impressive 84-61 defeat of Buffalo, and followed it up with a defensive masterpiece against Hampton, 57-39. In the third round, West Virginia repeated its success in the previous game with a 60-39 victory over Duquesne.

The Mountaineers found the going much tougher in their Elite Eight matchup with Villanova. WVU needed overtime to put away the Wildcats, 75-70. It was a similar story in the Mountaineers semifinal contest against Temple, with West Virginia needing an additional period to pull out a 66-58 win.

Tactics & Prediction

Against the Mountaineers, Coach Close will probably employ a 2-3 zone quite a bit. But whether the Bruins play man or zone, the defense needs to sag off the ball to help against WVU's inside scorers. Most important of all, the Bruins have to limit WVU's second chance opportunities. Against a relatively small Michigan team, UCLA allowed 21 offensive rebounds. UCLA can't repeat that performance on the boards against the mountainous Mountaineers and expect to win.

Although an open, fast-paced game makes the Bruins vulnerable to turnovers and poor shot selection, it plays to UCLA's strengths too. Given the Mountaineers' determination to hit the offensive glass, UCLA should try to push the ball upcourt as much as possible. Since WVU doesn't use a deep bench and has three players that log heavy minutes, an uptempo attacking offense favors UCLA. However, the Bruins need to ensure that they don't give up easy baskets going the other way; WVU does not shoot well, so UCLA needs to avoid conceding layups.

In their halfcourt offense, UCLA would do well to spread the court and try to pull WVU's Montgomery away from the basket. Paulina Hersler's ability to step out to the arc and score from the perimeter may prove valuable against the Mountaineers. The key will probably be the ability of Korver and Fields to score from the perimeter, though. Since Stepney will struggle to stay in front of Canada, UCLA needs to be able to spread out the WVU defense to take full advantage of Canada's ability to penetrate.

If the game is close in the final minutes, the Bruins should have a slight advantage since the Mountaineers don't shoot well from outside or from the line. And if the Bruins are down by a half dozen or so in the final minute, they may be able to get back in the game by putting WVU at the free throw line.

Although West Virginia enjoys a considerable advantage by virtue of playing at home, the Bruins showed real mental toughness in a tight semifinal game on the road against the Wolverines. If UCLA is able to get a lead early in the game, much of the Mountaineers home court advantage will be nullified.

In my opinion, this game comes down to four things:

  1. Can UCLA keep the Mountaineers off the offensive glass?
  2. Can UCLA fast break against WVU without piling up turnovers?
  3. Can Korver and Fields consistently punish WVU from the perimeter?
  4. Can the Bruins maintain their composure late in a close game as they (mostly) did against Michigan?

Prediction: UCLA wins by five to claim the WNIT title, and Dan Guerrero will declare the season a great success.