Bruins heating up at right time
One ill-timed injury can turn a season on its heels. Nobody knows that as well as UCLA.
Last season, the Bruins started out 11-5 and were ranked 19th in the country, resurrecting the program with nonconference wins over the likes of Purdue and Texas. But then, after one of the team's stars got hurt in mid-January, UCLA hit a downward spiral, finishing 5-7 down the stretch to miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five seasons.
Twelve months later, however, UCLA's story is exactly the opposite. After enduring a tough December -- the Bruins went 4-4, losing four of seven games at one stretch, including a 23-point rout to Stanford on New Year's Day -- UCLA looks to be picking up speed at just the right time, thanks in large part to the performance of the same player the Bruins missed in crunch time last season.
Noelle Quinn, a junior guard who missed the final 12 games of last season because of cartilage damage to her left knee, has scored at least 20 points in each of UCLA's past six games. Granted, the Bruins lost two of those contests, but a 10-point home win over Stanford -- which snapped a 14-game losing streak to the Cardinal, dating to 2000 -- could go a long way toward getting the Bruins back at least into contention for a spot in the Big Dance. Currently, UCLA is just 13-9, but the Bruins are 8-1 at home, where they host three of their last five regular-season games before the Pac-10 tournament.
Quinn is averaging a team-high 18.3 points, but the rest of UCLA's "Triple Threat" isn't far behind. Lisa Willis, who had a tremendous summer with USA Basketball, ranks second on the team with 17.6 points, while point guard Nikki Blue averages 13.4.
Though Duke has the best perimeter tandem in the nation, and Georgia's and Rutgers' backcourts aren't far behind, UCLA's guards deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. Quinn, Willis and Blue each shoot at least 41.7 percent from the field, and they've combined for 81 3-pointers this season, 12.4 assists per game and almost 62 percent of the Bruins' offense.
Part of the Bruins' success can be attributed to Blue's maturation at the point guard spot. Blue averaged almost 30 points per game at Bakersfield West (Calif.) High School, and she came into college knowing she can score anytime she wants. In her first three years at UCLA, she averaged 16.2 points, including last season's 16.9 average.
This season, however, Blue, a 5-foot-8 senior, wanted to focus on making her teammates better -- thinking of them first and setting them up for better shots. That's a tough thing to do when you're as good as she is at creating her own shot every time she gets the ball. It takes an entirely different mentality -- yet Blue has made it work. Don't think it's a coincidence that while her scoring average has dipped slightly, she's averaging a team-high and Pac-10-best 5.2 assists per game and four other Bruins are in double figures.
For as much as Blue put the team on her back when Quinn went down last season, Willis stepped up, as well. Not as heavily recruited as Blue, who chose UCLA over UConn, Willis is UCLA's all-time 3-point leader with 225 treys, including 39 this season. The past two years have been a coming-out party of sorts for the 5-11 senior guard, who ranked fourth in scoring and first in 3-point shooting for the gold-medal winning USA women's squad at last summer's World University Games in Turkey. The offseason experience bolstered Willis' confidence and skills; she has scored at least 20 points in 11 games and ranks fifth in the Pac-10 in scoring. Willis also leads the Pac-10 with 3.55 steals per game. And then, of course, there's Quinn, who ranks second in the Pac-10 in scoring behind Stanford star Candice Wiggins. Quinn could have been Wiggins' teammate in Palo Alto -- she had a 4.2 grade point average in high school -- but chose UCLA instead. The conference's fourth-ranked rebounder (7.8 per game), Quinn can take you inside or outside and has a beautiful 3-point shot. She also does a lot of things that don't show up in the box score, which is why her injury last season hurt so much. UCLA coach Kathy Olivier likened it to what would have happened if the Chicago Bulls had lost Michael Jordan.
But with Quinn back and an improved inside presence, the Bruins have turned the tables. They're the second-highest scoring team in the league -- Stanford is just 0.3 points ahead -- and the second-best shooting squad (46 percent from the field). UCLA also ranks first in the Pac-10 in steals (10.8 per game) and third in assists (17.4). And each member of that Triple Threat ranks among the top nine in the league in assists per game.
Trouble is, UCLA's success depends on all three of them -- and likely at least one other player -- hitting double digits. They're best when they blend together, when everybody contributes.
And when that happens, UCLA is almost unstoppable. For example, in a 95-56 victory over Pepperdine on Dec. 8, Quinn, Blue and Willis combined for 54 points despite the fact that none of them played more than 28 minutes. The performance prompted Pepperdine assistant Vanessa Nygaard, who played in the WNBA and was a Stanford star, to reportedly say, "It's like we're playing the [Los Angeles] Sparks tonight."Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
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