When UCLA women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell took over at the helm of the program in 2008, one of her primary goals was to make the Bruins a consistent winner away from home. Just one season later, it looks like she is getting her wish.
On Saturday afternoon, the Bruins squeezed their way to a 4-1 road record in conference with a back and forth 69-65 win at Washington. The battle in Seattle turned out to be the second installment in consecutive close contests for UCLA, which toughed out a win two nights before in Pullman, Wash.
But just like Thursday’s game against Washington State, the Bruins closed out the Huskies despite some potentially costly miscues. Even with the sweep, there is a sense of concern for the occasionally sloppy effort against two teams in the lower tier of the league.
“This weekend, we were a little stagnant,” said point guard Doreena Campbell, who pitched in 21 points against the Huskies. “We still have a lot of work left to do. This weekend we didn’t really improve.”
The main issue?
“We need to do better on defense,” Campbell said. “This game here, the last minute and a half was about 10 minutes long. But our defense did make some stops to get the ball back.”
Late game situations have become commonplace this season for UCLA. But according to Caldwell and Campbell, the Bruins have been able to draw on the lessons of several close losses in non-conference play. That experience has brought on greater poise and a killer instinct that was lacking in the early part of the season.
“It’s been so good for us. We dropped some of our games on the road, but they were always in those games,” Caldwell said. “We’re able to pull from the fact that we know what to do late in the game on the road. We’ve been able to turn up the defense and get the pressure we need.”
But the one player who has stood out the most in clutch situations has been the veteran Campbell. More often than not, when the clock is winding down, the junior point guard has the ball in her hands. And more often than not, she comes through.
Campbell nailed a pair of crucial 3-point shots to swing the momentum back to UCLA after a pair of brief surges by the hometown Huskies. Then she held her own at the charity stripe by sinking several important free throws to put her team comfortably ahead as the game drew to a close.
“When I’m at the line, it’s like, “˜Hey, let me concentrate and get these two points,'” Campbell said. “The clock is going so slow, and the other team is making their free throws, so you have to just focus on the two points.”
With the win, UCLA solidified its hold on third place in the Pac-10. The Bruins trail second-place USC by just one game, and first-place Stanford by two. UCLA’s two conference losses have come at the hands of the Cardinal and the Trojans.
But with a race brewing at the top of the league, the Bruins know that a close victory is still just that, a win, and one that will no doubt help them down the line.
“Close games are important especially for postseason play,” Campbell said. “It’s going to really help us in the future, knowing that we have to take it one possession at a time.”
Caldwell, for her part, is cautious of looking too far ahead, despite the team’s early success.
“It’s a great start for us,” Caldwell said. “But there are many more ball games to be played.”
Jasmine Dixon led the Bruins with 25 points. UCLA faces Oregon on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.