LOS ANGELES -- Rhema Gardner scored a career-high 18 points and No. 22 UCLA opened its season with a 67-59 win over McNeese State in the Preseason WNIT on Friday night.
Atonye Nyingifa added 16 points and 12 rebounds, while Moriah Faulk and Thea Lemberger scored 10 points apiece in Cori Close's UCLA head coaching debut.Ashlyn Baggett scored 15 points and sister Caitlyn added 12 for McNeese State, which shot 31 percent overall in its opener.The Bruins outclassed the Cowgirls to start the second half, turning a 13-point lead into a 53-28 advantage in a 6-minute span before fending-off a late comeback bid.UCLA will host the winner of New Mexico-Texas Tech in the WNIT's second round on Sunday.Close, who started her coaching career on the Bruins' staff in the mid-90s, returned to UCLA in April after spending seven seasons as a Florida State assistant. She replaced Nikki Caldwell, who left to take over LSU after guiding the Bruins to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.The Bruins won 28 games last year, one shy of a school record, but face the season without the help of their leading scorer, Jasmine Dixon. The All-America honorable mention will miss the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon.Gardner and Nyingifa are already filling the void in the frontcourt for the undersized Bruins. Gardner was four points shy of her entire total from a season ago, while Nyingifa was two points away from her career best of 18.The game was played at the much more intimate John Wooden Center, which will serve as the Bruins' home while Pauley Pavilion undergoes a major renovation.McNeese State came into the contest fresh off its most successful season in program history. The Cowgirls captured the Southland Conference championship for the first time before losing in first round of the NCAA tournament to eventual champion Texas A&M.UCLA controlled the opening 20 minutes and then scored the first eight points after halftime as part of a 14-2 run. Nyingifa had seven points during the spurt, which resulted in a 53-28 lead with 14:18 remaining.Kendra Wells eventually snapped the drought with a jumper as part of an 8-0 run that got the Cowgirls' within 53-36.McNeese St. mustered one final push over the final minutes. Candace LaCombe and Ashlyn Baggett hit 3-pointers to close to 66-59 with 11 seconds left.