As has been the case for most of the UCLA women’s basketball team’s season, senior guard Rebekah Gardner was in the spotlight Saturday afternoon.
Before the game against the Arizona Wildcats, Gardner, the team’s only senior, was honored for senior day, marking her last home game in a Bruin uniform.
“I definitely felt loved. The crowd was cheering for me and (so was) the team,” Gardner said. “While we were warming up we were talking about how it was the last time we were going to play together here at UCLA.”
Following the pregame festivities, Gardner didn’t disappoint, leading UCLA (14-13, 9-7 Pac-12) to a 72-58 win over Arizona (14-15, 3-14) behind a versatile performance in which she registered 21 points, six rebounds and five assists .
Matching Gardner’s intensity were the 1,572 fans in attendance, the most for a UCLA home game this season.
Bruin supporters made their presence felt in the team’s last game at its temporary home at the John Wooden Center .
“Our crowd sensed when we needed them today. That connection, that energy and having people behind you is a powerful thing,” said coach Cori Close.
The Bruins were affected early by the Wildcats’ full court pressure, but junior forward Markel Walker, who didn’t start because of an injury and a violation of team policy, righted the ship when she entered the game midway through the first half.
Walker’s court vision created better ball movement for UCLA, improving the team’s efficiency and pace on offense, a pace which only the Bruins would be able to keep up after a tightly contested first half.
After taking a 40-35 lead into halftime the Bruins didn’t let up, instead increasing their physicality and maintaining their efficiency. UCLA finished the game shooting 49 percent from the field and holding Arizona to just 32 percent.
“We just kept our composure and I think we’re getting used to playing more physical,” Gardner said. “Our post players are doing a better job of getting on the boards and being physical down low.”
In a season in which many of UCLA’s players have been sidelined with injuries, the Bruins have looked to the youth of the team for production, which is what freshman Kacy Swain provided Saturday.
Swain, who came into the game averaging fewer than three points and rebounds per game, filled in admirably for the recently injured Corinne Costa, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
“My coaches told me that since so many players were out I needed to step up for us to play well and come out with the win,” Swain said.
In addition to senior day, it was also the Bruins’ “Play 4Kay” game in which teams and fans alike wore pink to both raise awareness for breast cancer and honor the late North Carolina State coach, Kay Yow, who died of breast cancer in 2009.
Close was coaching in the ACC at the time of Yow’s death, so the game Saturday was especially important for her.
“This was our “˜Play 4Kay’ day and our pink day, and it was about playing for something bigger than ourselves,” Close said. “Doing whatever you can, finding whatever gears inside of you that you didn’t even know were there for the sake of somebody else.”