UCLA Basketball: The women’s team moves into the future

The women of UCLA basketball have completed a memorable season which ends with the implementation of a few legacies and moves forward with a new focus.

With just under a minute left in the game against #2 Texas, UCLA basketball’s Jordin Canada was unphased by the fact that her Bruins were about to win their Sweet 16 game, the first time the program has accomplished this feat since 1999.

RELATED: Canada and Billings have been invited to the WNBA Draft in NYC

At the 0:59 mark, Canada made a layup to put the Bruins up 80-72. According to her teammate Kelli Hayes, Canada would not let anyone celebrate. The floor general from the last four years was about to go further than she ever had in the NCAA Tournament in her time as a Bruin, but she had not reached that point. There was still time left on the clock.

The Bruins were about to accomplish what they could not two years prior. In 2016, UCLA faced Texas in the Sweet 16 and looked to be heading to the Elite 8, but then the fourth quarter happened. Texas went on a 24-10 run, propelling them to a 72-64 win. Things were different in 2018.

This time, UCLA won 84-75. With what happened two years prior, and considering everything UCLA (and Canada) we’re playing for, it is understandable why Canada would not celebrate until the clock hit 00:00. The senior was leading and setting an example for her teammates who will continue on without her and fellow seniors Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes when the season ends.

In the 4th quarter of this game, UCLA put their foot on the gas and left the Longhorns in the dust to get the win.

Once the game ended, ecstasy erupted on the face of the Bruins. Head coach Cori Close and her team made it to the Elite 8 for the first time in her tenure. This was the best team Close had assembled in her time in Westwood and they were now one game away from the Final Four.

Unfortuantely, a Final Four would have to wait. In their next game, UCLA met #1 Mississippi State and they were every bit as challenging as expected. The Bruins’ brought their fight, fight, fight, but the women of State were too much. UCLA lost 89-73.

The season was over. Canada, Billings and Hayes had played their final game in blue and gold and a season that held so much promise, ends with mixed emotions.

UCLA was expected to win the Pac-12 at the beginning of the season. The Bruins fell short of that in what turned out to be a brutal conference schedule. During their last road trip, the Bruins had to take on Oregon State and Oregon, two of the top teams in the conference. UCLA forced overtime in both games, but unfortunately, lost each game, guaranteeing that the Bruins would not capture a regular season Pac-12 championship.

They also lost in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, so there would be no hardware won up to that point in the season. The NCAA Tournament was the last chance to make some noise.

Despite the Elite 8 exit, the Bruins turned up the volume to 11. They hosted the first two rounds at Pauley Pavilion and ran through American and Creighton. The Sweet 16 game against Texas was quite possibly the biggest win against any opponent during the 2017-18 season and despite the loss to Mississippi State, UCLA’s energy was resonating through the UCLA women’s basketball fanbase, even though it was over. But only this chapter has ended.

No one knows what the future holds, but if one prepares, the future could be very good, even if you accommodate for losses.

The Bruins are now without two of their biggest pieces from last season as Canada and Billings prepare for the WNBA Draft. Both of these former Bruins, who have left legacies at UCLA that will be hard to replace, have been invited to attend the festivities in New York City as it appears as they will both be first round draft picks.

Though Close did not win a banner or a trophy, it is quite the accomplishment to have two of her players be two of the top picks in the draft. It will be tough moving on without these former Bruins, but the future looks bright.

There is no way to replace players of Canada and Billings’ caliber. They are not just special talents, but to have them no longer play side-by-side as they did for so many years will require the chemistry of the team to be altered. Luckily, Close has been preparing for this.

According to ProspectsNation.com, over the last two years, UCLA was ranked 5th in 2017, and 19th in 2018 in the recruiting class rankings. Last year, the Bruins brought in sharp shooter Chantel Horvat and three low post players, Lauryn Miller, Kayla Owens and Michaela Onyenwere. Onyenwere was the most productive as she was 5th on the team in scoring (6.9 ppg) and 4th in rebounds (4.7 rpg). In this writer’s opinion, she could eventually be the new Billings.

UCLA Women’s basketball has just begun to make noise. It is just going to be in the form of a different song going into the future.

Coming next season, the Bruins bring in a guard heavy class that will be led by ESPN Top 100 recruit PG Ahlana Smith, but also includes 4-star Kiara Jefferson and Shayley Harris (who is a 6’5 guard, one has to love the length Close is going for).

But these are just the newbies. Just because Canada, Billings and Hayes are gone, does not mean that the Bruins are void of veteran talent.

Next season, the Bruins will be in the hands of Japrecee Dean who will take over for Canada. Dean was an important piece to UCLA’s season as she not only backed up Canada, but learned how to lead a team from the former All-Pac-12 player. The Bruins also return their third leading scorer Kennedy Burke who averaged 10.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg and was second in assists per game with 2.2 behind Canada.

As mentioned before, the front court will take a hit with the loss of Billings, but UCLA maintains some stability as Lajahna Drummer returns. Though she only put up 6.3 ppg, it is her skills around the board that will be vital to the success of the team. Drummer was second in rebounding (6.8 rpg) only to Billings who posted a Pac-12 best 9.5 rebounds per game. Add in Onyenwere and the Bruin front court could be deadly.

Though the Bruins might take a step back next season, do not expect that to last long. With a combination of stellar coaching, proper development, a focus on defense and a roster full of women that can score at will, UCLA Women’s basketball has just begun to make noise. It is just going to be in the form of a different song going into the future. Go Bruins!