The Super Shot contest, arguably the most popular halftime ritual of any UCLA athletic event, took an unexpected but entertaining turn during Sunday’s women’s basketball game.
A UCLA cheerleader took to the shoulders of her male teammate who had his name drawn and flung shots downward toward the basket from 11 feet in the air.
And just like that particular circus trick, the No. 22 Bruins stood head and shoulders above their weekend competition, posting victories over McNeese State and Tennessee Tech in the first two rounds of the Women’s Preseason National Invitation Tournament.
Despite thier obvious advantage in skill, UCLA hit a rough patch in the second half of Friday’s game.
The Bruins (2-0) almost let a 25-point second-half lead vanish into thin air against McNeese State (0-1) thanks to their 22 turnovers.
But UCLA was able to hang on and secure a 67-59 victory behind a career-high 18 points from sophomore forward Rhema Gardner and the first of two double-doubles from junior forward Atonye Nyingifa.
First-year coach Cori Close was less than pleased with the manner of the win, and made sure her players knew going into Sunday that that kind of carelessness wasn’t going to fly.
“(Saturday) was not a warm and fuzzy day,” Close said. “We really challenged them (in practice) and I’m really proud, in the short turnaround, of all these players who have never played these roles before to grow so much in one day.”
The Bruins grew enough to dominate Tennessee Tech 74-52 Sunday thanks to a strong showing on the boards ““ the Bruins outrebounded the Golden Eaglettes 49-35.
Senior guard Rebekah Gardner stole the show by setting career highs with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Gardner’s hustle plays helped set the tone early on in what would be a game dominated by the Bruins’ determination and grit.
“This game, I came out with more of an aggressive mindset,” Gardner, the older sister of Rhema, said. “Coach Cori mentioned to me in preseason about how I need to get on the boards more, so I think this year that’s more the focus for me.”
While UCLA shot a torrid 51.6 percent in the first half, they managed to shut down Tennessee Tech’s main weapons ““ junior shooting guard Kellie Cook and senior point guard Tacarra Hayes. They combined for 4-14 from the field.
Cook exploded for 36 points in the Golden Eaglettes’ first-round win over East Tennessee State, but Close had other plans for their matchup on Sunday. Cook finished on 1-5 shooting, all three-point attempts.
“When someone goes off for 36, you better make it a part of your game plan,” Close said. “We took away all their go-to things they wanted to do. We made them go to their third, fourth, fifth option very early in the game so they could never get into a very good rhythm.”
Sophomore guard Thea Lemberger got things started in a positive manner for the Bruins, sinking her first two shots and drawing a charge in the game’s first few minutes. Lemberger finished with a career-high 12 points and matched her career high of four assists.
“I’m just getting more comfortable with the new role I have this year, adapting and being confident,” Lemberger said. “I expect more performances like that.”
Lemberger accounted for all six of the Bruins’ points behind the arc, nailing both of her three-point attempts.
Meanwhile, Nyingifa continued her strong start to the season by fighting for every offensive rebound and utilizing her versatile post game on her way to 6-for-13 shooting.
But just as important was the play of UCLA’s reserve bigs, sophomore center Corinne Costa and freshman power forward Kacy Swain.
Swain was a force on offense early, hitting her first two shots en route to a nine-point outing.
And despite her somewhat pedestrian stat line of two points, two rebounds and one block, the towering Costa changed the game defensively upon her entrance, tipping several wayward passes and fighting in the post with Tennessee Tech’s sizable senior center Brittany Darling.
“Corinne came in and she did one heck of a job,” Nyingifa said. “She came in fighting and was really physical out there. She came in with a really positive attitude.”
The Bruins absolutely demolished the Golden Eaglettes inside, outscoring them 38-14 in the paint and 17-9 on second-chance points. UCLA also displayed their superiority in the open court, blanking Tennessee Tech 18-0 in fast break points.
The two wins over the weekend could inspire a good deal of confidence going forward, and the Bruins will have a chance to back up that confidence when they take on No. 1 Baylor in Waco, Tex. on Thursday in the semifinals.
“I said to our team in the locker room, “˜We all know in order to go and win at Baylor, you’re going to have to play your very best. Isn’t that what you came to UCLA to do?’” Close said. “With Baylor, obviously everyone talks about (6-foot-8 junior center) Brittney Griner, but they are tough, they’re unselfish, they’ve got versatility, they’ve got quickness in the backcourt.”
UCLA has plenty of size on its team as well, but if Griner proves to be too much inside, maybe Close can call upon her secret weapon.
The 11-foot cheerleader combo could surely swat a few of the All-American’s shots away from the basket.