NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -- Traveling for the holidays has turned out well for West Virginia.
Taylor Palmer scored 18 points and the Mountaineers beat UCLA (No. 25 AP) 63-54 in Friday's night's opening round of the Holiday Inn Thanksgiving Basketball Classic at Cal State Northridge.The Mountaineers spent last year's Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they scored upset-victories over No. 17 Iowa State and No. 21 TCU.This was their first victory in three games against UCLA."It helps because we know we can play anywhere," Palmer said of the team's annual excursions. "We don't have to be at home to win games. As long as we have each other, it doesn't matter where we are."While Friday's victory gave the Mountaineers a sense of accomplishment, it also served as a reminder of how much work still needs to be done before they start their Big East schedule. West Virginia shot 40 percent from the field against UCLA and turned the ball over 22 times.The Mountaineers had a few chances to pull away from the Bruins (2-2) but the shooting percentage and turnovers prevented them from doing it. A scoring drought that lasted 5:38 helped UCLA whittle a 10-point first-half lead to four points.UCLA was hampered in the first half by poor shooting as well. The Bruins shot just 29 percent from the floor in the opening frame, their worst half of the season. They increased that to 43 percent in the second half but it didn't make much of a difference. West Virginia dominated the boards, outrebounding UCLA by a 47-26 margin.Natalie Burton's put-back of Christal Caldwell miss with 8:50 left in the game gave the Mountaineers their biggest lead (43-30) but it didn't last. The Bruins charged back, using a 16-5 run, to cut their deficit to two points.West Virginia answered with consecutive baskets by Caldwell and Asya Bussie to push the lead back to 53-46. A desperation 3-pointer by Palmer, with the shot clock expiring, gave the Mountaineers a 56-46 lead with 2:04 remaining.The Bruins were hoping to use Friday's game to erase the memories of last week's 33-point loss to Baylor. Instead it left UCLA coach Cari Close questioning her team's toughness.The Bruins are saddled with several injuries, and added another when Kacy Swain bumped her head on the floor in the first half. Swain left the game and will not play in Saturday's consolation game.Close refuses to use the injuries as an excuse."(Friday) was all about toughness and being mentally focused," she said. "We have plenty of talent if they do the things together. West Virginia was the aggressor. They had more focus down the stretch and we paid the price."Rebekah Gardner led the Bruins with 19 points. She has been the Bruins' leading scorer in three of their four games.