By Rhiannon Potkey, LCH Correspondent
The pace of UCLA’s offense is best measured this season by a certain accessory the players wear during practice.
Head coach Nikki Caldwell is having the Bruins strap on heart rate monitors every day to ensure they are pushing themselves to their cardiovascular limits.
“We are really trying to run up and down the floor,” UCLA senior guard Erica Tukiainen said. “Coach wants us to be in great shape this year so we can play a fast tempo. Everyone has been conditioning hard and it’s really starting to pay off. It has been exciting.”
UCLA is trying to expedite its progress in its second season under Caldwell, who came to Westwood after six seasons as an assistant for Pat Summitt at Tennessee.
The Bruins return four starters from last year’s 19-12 squad that finished fourth in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Senior guard Doreena Campbell, a preseason all-Pac-10 selection, led UCLA’s balanced offensive attack at 12.9 points per game.
Tukiainen (pronounced TWO-key-EYE-nen) returns as the second-leading scorer (8.3 ppg).
UCLA has added two freshmen, including 5-foot-3 point guard Mariah Williams. Williams, from Colorado’s powerful Regis Jesuit, should fit right in because “she is so, so fast,” according to Tukiainen.
Rutgers transfer Jasmine Dixon, a Long Beach Poly graduate, will be eligible to play in mid-December.
The Bruins have their sights set on making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, and contending for the Pac-10 title.
They were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10 preseason coaches and media polls.
“We want to be the underdogs, but we think we are No. 1,” Tukiainen said. “You have to have that attitude because if you think you are No. 2 or 3 than that attitude is going to come in the game and you are not going to be as competitive.”
The Bruins treat their practices like game situations. They break things down into four-minute periods with a one-minute water break.
At such an intense pace, their heart rates have become as important a statistic as their shooting percentage and rebounding margin.
Last season, nobody on UCLA played more than 30 minutes per game and 10 players averaged at least 13 minutes.
Depth will be a key once again this season.
“The whole idea is to go hard for as long as you can, take a break then come back in,” Tukiainen said. “We have a lot of different players who are very versatile and can give us different things on the court. We can interchange players to push the ball down court.”
Born and raised in Finland, Tukiainen moved to Los Angeles with her mother and little brother just before entering high school.
She didn’t realize until her junior at Windward High that she could play basketball in college.
“In Europe, it is a little bit different. They don’t really have university teams like they do here in the United States. The next thing is professional basketball,” she said. “I just feel so grateful to have the opportunity to go through the recruiting process and come to UCLA.”
Tukiainen has played with the Finnish junior national teams, and hopes to play with the women’s senior national team next summer.
She speaks Finnish at home and wants to have her UCLA teammates over for to celebrate Christmas Finnish style.
“We celebrate on the Eve as opposed to the day, and instead of Santa Claus leaving the gifts at night Santa Claus comes over and and hangs out with you,” Tukiainen said. “The kids meet him and sing with him and he gives gifts. And obviously it has the religious part to it like reading the bible and, of course, the food. We love the food.”
Tukiainen is a pre-med student and is preparing for her MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). She says she wouldn’t mind becoming UCLA’s team physician one day.
But first Tukiainen has one more season to implement her three C’s to success – confidence, composure and concentration.
“I want to be able to support my teammates and push the girls to make sure they are the best possible players and the best possible students they can be,” she said. “And of course I love to shoot the 3-pointer, so shooting the lights out would be nice.”
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