Seniors to end careers against Arizona schools

Erica Tukiainen and the Bruins will play Arizona State in Pauley Pavilion.

Erica Tukiainen and the Bruins will play Arizona State in Pauley Pavilion. Tiffany Cheng

The Bruins had a pleasant surprise on their way to Tuesday’s practice in Pauley Pavilion. For the first time in nearly four years, the Bruins, in the midst of a six-game winning streak, earned their way into the national poll, coming in at No. 25 on the Coaches Poll.

The newly-ranked Bruins (20-7, 13-3 Pac-10) will get their final test of the regular season as they host the Arizona schools, with Arizona State (17-10, 9-7) coming to Pauley Pavilion tonight and Arizona (13-14, 6-10) visiting Saturday for UCLA’s Senior Day.

With the Bruins entering their season-ending home stand on a hot streak, there is a palpable sense of optimism about a program that is looking for their first taste of postseason play since 2006. For the three Bruin seniors, center Moniquee Alexander and guards Erica Tukiainen and Allison Taka, the final two games will be an opportunity to leave Nell and John Wooden Court on a high note.

“We definitely deserve a place in the tournament,” Tukiainen said. “We started off not being able to finish big games, but now we’ve proven that we’ve come around, finishing teams and getting the job done.”

Coach Nikki Caldwell knows that her team is in a good place in terms of tournament eligibility ““ the Bruins have won 20 games, and are 13-3 in the Pac-10 ““ but she understands that nothing is ever certain.

“I think there’s always work to be done,” Caldwell said. “Just getting to 20 wins doesn’t always solidify your spot in the round of 64. But we’ve shown our ability to win.”

One of the major issues for UCLA is their lack of postseason experience. No player on the roster has played after a conference tournament.

“You’re down the stretch, and it’s been a long season,” Caldwell said. “You can’t give in now. They haven’t had anyone on the roster that has experienced postseason play. We’re trying to show them as a staff that when you’re preparing for the postseason, you have to prepare by finishing off the regular season.”

But the team is not counting their chickens before they hatch. The focus for this week remained on notching up two victories against a pair of improving teams: Arizona and Arizona State. The Bruins swept the Arizona road trip to open conference play, but that was back in January. Caldwell knows that they aren’t going to be seeing quite the same teams as the ones they overcame with relative ease before.

“We have to finish out strong in these next two home games,” Caldwell said. “Arizona State has gotten better. That game was so long ago, you have different teams coming in here.”

The Sun Devils are led by senior guard Danielle Orsillo, who leads the team in scoring, averaging over 14.6 points per game.

The Arizona Wildcats are led by junior forward Ify Ibekwe, sister of former UCLA player Chinyere Ibekwe. But Caldwell has her eyes on freshman Davellyn Whyte, whose play has improved over the course of the season.

“(Whyte) has gotten so much better because of all of the minutes she’s played,” Caldwell said. “They’re hungry for wins, just like we are, so we cannot take anybody lightly.”

Whyte has started every game for the Wildcats and is second on the team in minutes played.

For the trio of seniors, the final two games will be a bittersweet moment. Tukiainen spoke on what she will miss most about Pauley Pavilion.

“The tradition is so special, with John Wooden and all the old basketball teams,” Tukiainen said. “I love seeing how much we’ve built this program. (The seniors) have talked about this for so long: about raising this program to another level.”

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