Thursday, July 18

Women’s basketball is also gearing up to take on Trojans

Saturday's game against USC will find both Los Angeles rivals at even 3-1 conference rankings

Senior center Moniquee Alexander drives during last year's match at USC. Alexander scored eight points and grabbed 13 boards in last year's game across Los Angeles.

Senior center Moniquee Alexander drives during last year's match at USC. Alexander scored eight points and grabbed 13 boards in last year's game across Los Angeles. Kendall Salter / Daily Bruin

Freshman forward Markel Walker, shown here against Stanford on Sunday, leads the Bruins with 7.9 rebounds per game this season and has started all 15 games for the Bruins. Walker figures to be an important player in the UCLA defense in Sunday’s nationally televised game at the Galen Center, Walker’s first career game against USC.

One doesn’t have to look very hard to see how badly this team wants to beat USC.

It’s in the wind sprints, the sweat, the stretches and the floor burns. It rings out in the whistles of coaches and imploring words of teammates.

Beat ‘SC.

That is the goal this weekend when the UCLA women’s basketball team travels across Los Angeles to face the Trojans. The recent history of the rivalry has ranged from being close to contentious, or a little bit of both. On paper at least, this game should be more of the same. With two evenly matched teams set to clash, the Bruins are looking forward to the challenge.

“I think we need to look at this game as one that has a lot of ramifications, with the history of both programs competing against each other,” Caldwell said.

The site of Sunday’s contest, the Galen Center on the campus of USC, has not been friendly to UCLA in the past. The Bruins have never won in the Galen Center, a statistic that doesn’t make any of the Bruin players happy. For the seniors, this is one of their final chances to grab a win on USC’s home floor, a fact not lost on the mind of guard Erica Tukiainen.

“I’m really pumped,” Tukiainen said. “We have some unfinished business there. Losing to them, … it hurts. This game is one of the highlights of the whole year. We’ve talked to everyone about what it means to be a Bruin, and I think for us it’s more of a focus on us.”

The last few years of the rivalry have seen hard times for the blue and gold. The Trojans have won 8 of the last 10 games between the rivals, dating back to 2005. But UCLA has won two out of the last three. Of special significance was a Pac-10 tournament route of the Trojans in 2008. The Bruins also won 87-75 at Pauley Pavilion a season ago.

The past matters little to Caldwell however, who is more focused on the task at hand than overcoming history.

“You have to look at it as another game, and prepare,” Caldwell said. “We need to fall back on the identity of this program. When you’re on the road, the ball bounces differently, whether it goes in for you or not. We have to focus on the things that we can control.”

UCLA and USC come into this game with similar resumes, with both having lost tough games to ranked teams but putting together a solid record to date. With both teams at 3-1 in the conference after home losses to No. 2 Stanford, the outcome of this weekend’s edition of the rivalry could mean more than pride and bragging rights. The Trojans have dropped contests to Xavier and the Cardinal, as well as a heartbreaker against Duke. Those results tell Caldwell that this opponent is certainly going to be a difficult one.

“You have to respect what (coach Michael) Cooper has done with that program in such a short time,” Caldwell said. “We have to be able to get geared up for every game. It’s all about us controlling the things we can control.”

If the Bruins are to make off with a win in hostile territory, they will have to get off to a good start. Against USC in Galen a season ago, the Bruins came out ice cold from the field, shooting a paltry 22 percent in the first half. The players remember that performance, and given the increased emphasis on execution that has been the focus of practice this week, the team expects to take the floor with purpose Sunday.

“We have been working so hard to get prepared,” Tukiainen said. “The coaches have a good plan and we are looking forward to going there and having fun, and I think we’ve done that before. We know how to win, we know how to play tough games.”

This will also be the first taste of the rivalry for several Bruins, including the dynamic front-court duo of freshman Markel Walker and sophomore transfer Jasmine Dixon. Both will be relied upon to contribute heavily to the offense and provide post presence defensively. Walker, for her part, is extremely excited to get her taste of the rivalry. Though Walker hails from Philadelphia, she has already gotten a good sense of what the crosstown rivalry is all about.

“The way I feel now is that it’s another game,” Walker said. “But I see how it is so big for this school. I guess it’s pride. I’m waiting for the men’s game so I can see how it really is. We play better on the road in front of big crowds and that atmosphere, so I’m looking forward to stepping up to the challenge and really coming out to play.”

Caldwell will turn to her plethora of guards to shut down USC’s leading scorer, sophomore Ashley Corral, who averages 16 points per game. Senior guard Heather Oliver is also one to watch. She is deadly beyond the 3-point line, making exactly half of her attempts this season.

For UCLA, this Sunday is all about getting a crucial win to boost conference standing. But a little bragging rights wouldn’t hurt, either.

“It’s important to take each game one at a time, but it’s important for national recognition to be one of the top teams in your conference,” Caldwell said. “There are a lot of ramifications for beating good teams and winning ball games on the road.”

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