Friday, May 24

Harnessing the Huskies

Winners of six of their last seven games, senior guard Allison Taka and the Bruins take on Washington at home today. UCLA is currently second in the Pac-10.

Winners of six of their last seven games, senior guard Allison Taka and the Bruins take on Washington at home today. UCLA is currently second in the Pac-10. Tiffany Cheng

The last time the UCLA women’s basketball team played Washington, it took a late run and some clutch defense to escape Seattle with a road win.

But that was then, and this is now.

With the Bruins in the cozy confines of Pauley Pavilion, the team hopes that no late rallies are necessary this time around.

UCLA (16-7, 9-3 Pac-10) currently sits at second place in the conference standings, rarefied air for a team that hasn’t seen such heights since their last tournament appearance in 2006. But according to head coach Nikki Caldwell, there is work yet to be done, and this team is showing no signs of folding prematurely.

“We’re progressing in a positive way,” Caldwell said after practice Tuesday afternoon. “We have taken things from the Stanford loss. It’s fun to watch them cover for each other. It seems like this team is buying into the philosophy of having each other’s back.”

That attitude has begun to pay dividends after a series of close non-conference losses earlier in the season. Since opening Pac-10 play with a road sweep of the Arizona schools, the Bruins appeared to round into form. They enter Thursday’s game having won six of their last seven games, with the only loss coming against No. 2 Stanford in Palo Alto.

“We’re really excited. We haven’t been in this position in my four years here,” senior guard Allison Taka said. “It’s a different feeling. We know we are on the right track. We all wish we could go back and play those non-conference games again, because we would not have lost those if we were playing right now.”

For now, though, the focus lies not on the past, but the task at hand: namely, shutting down the Huskies (9-14, 4-9) on Thursday night. Washington poses its own set of problems, especially in the form of senior guard Sami Whitcomb. Whitcomb had 16 points in the teams’ previous matchup, and is the focal point of the Huskies’ offense.

“Their guard play is really strong. We have to be better in identifying their shooters,” Caldwell said. “I hope that our guards set the tone for us defensively, because Sami is a great offensive player. She leads the attack for them. You have to be ready to match her intensity.”

The Bruins, for their part, will need to find an offensive rhythm against a patient defense that frustrated their efforts at times in Seattle. There were signs of progress, however. In the win over the Huskies, the Bruins shot 60 percent from the field in the second half. That steady production will have to continue for UCLA to keep their hot streak alive. But Taka thinks that her team is more than ready to get the home stand under way.

“When we played Washington, that was early on in the Pac-10 season,” Taka said. “We’ve grown and matured a lot since then.”

Taka should know. She has spent most of her senior season on the bench with a foot injury. In that time, she has gained a special insight on this team and their opponents, and is often seen sitting next to the assistant coaches over the course of the game.

“We’re a totally different team now,” Taka said.

UCLA should be well rested, too. At halftime of their home rout against USC, Caldwell promised her team two days off if they could play with intensity for the remainder of the game and win. Tuesday’s practice was the team’s first day back on the court since their mini-break, and the Bruins responded with a hard practice.

“They really showed maturity in having those two days off. I wanted to rest them because we won’t have that opportunity anymore.” Caldwell said. “I’m glad that they came back here with the understanding that this was a work day.”

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