It was just around this time last year, give or take a week, that the UCLA Bruins traveled home after losing to Illinois State in an tournament in Iowa. It was the kind of game that most definitely fit under the heading “One that a program like UCLA shouldn’t lose.”
A year later — give or take a week – UCLA appears to be much farther past that place than a mere calendar year would suggest.
The Bruins are 4-0 to start the season for the first time since 1986-87. They have a pair of strong wins already over San Diego State (though the Aztecs recent struggles might be messing with the caliber of that victory) and at Notre Dame in double-overtime.
Nikki Caldwell’s third season has the feeling of a breakthrough. Anyone who thinks the Bruins are a distant second to Stanford in the Pac-10 race might end up surprised.
“We know what it takes and we know what we have to do,” Caldwell said earlier this week. “We are taking it one game at a time, and I know that is what people say, but we are always staying in the moment.”
At the moment, UCLA is a well-rounded, experienced team. Jasmine Dixon has nearly a full season as an active player in the program under her belt. She remains the Bruins leading scorer at 14.5 points per game.
Markel Walker, who is coming off the bench but scoring in double figures, is more mature as a sophomore than as a freshman. Redshirt freshman guard Antonye Nyingifa is showing Caldwell what UCLA missed last season when she was injured.
And then there are the senior guards Darxia Morris and Doreena Campbell.
“Those two have really come into their own,” Caldwell said. “They both have a different sense of urgency.”
Morris was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week last week. She scored 17 points against the Irish, eight of those in overtime and had a steal and a pair of free throws to seal the win. She ranks No. 2 on the team in scoring thus far at 12.0 points a game.
Caldwell said she has Morris, who to this point has been a dangerous, but inconsistent player, running the point more often.
“She is such a great playmaker and we want to showcase and tap into that,” Caldwell said. “We want her pushing the ball right back at people.”
Caldwell said her staff is looking closely every day at the ways the Bruins can improve.
“We need to make open shots and become better passers and I think we could go a lot deeper (into the bench),” Caldwell said. “You have to take what you did last year, the areas that are not your strengths, and try to make them a point of emphasis. Our kids have also adapted to us. They’ve had two full seasons of our philosophy, they know what we want them to do and that’s a big plus for us as well.”
Caldwell said she feels like her program is on a path.
“Our cohesion is so much stronger and better this year,” Caldwell said. “When I first got here, my biggest area of concern was not only that the kids bought into what we were trying to put together, but that they bought into each other.”
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