Early in the first half of UCLA’s game against Washington State on Friday, senior guard Mariah Williams was trapped in the corner as the shot clock ticked down. With just seconds left, she rose up and passed as the buzzer sounded, unaware of the time on the clock.
As the Bruins shuffled back on defense following the shot clock violation, redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa offered her hand to Williams for a morale-boosting high-five. Their hands hit air, missing each other’s completely. It was an inauspicious start to the weekend, as it appeared the Bruins weren’t at all on the same page.
Yet after slow first halves against both Washington State on Friday and Washington on Sunday, No. 14 UCLA had a pair of strong second-half performances to register decisive wins in both games.
UCLA looked sloppy in the first half against a struggling Washington State (5-10, 1-3 Pac-12) team, and went into halftime holding a slim four-point lead. But the Bruins started the third quarter with an aggressive full-court press, forcing the Cougars into four consecutive turnovers. With its renewed defensive intensity, UCLA quickly turned the close game into a blowout, finishing with a 78-52 win.
“Defense is the core of who we are and the second thing that is the core of who we are is our passion plays. It’s doing the non-statistical things that lead to productivity and teamwork, and that was the difference in the second half,” said coach Cori Close.
Armed with this formula for success, UCLA hoped to replicate it against Washington (10-5, 2-2) right from the tip off on Sunday.
“(The key is) just coming into the first half with that same hunger and aggression and intensity,” said junior guard Thea Lemberger.
“You can tell that we were really feeding off our defensive intensity and we were getting easier baskets, so if we can generate that same energy to start the game then put that energy together throughout a 40-minute game, we might be trouble.”
Rather than being trouble, UCLA looked to be in trouble in the first half, committing 16 turnovers and heading into halftime trailing by one. Close had a simple message to her team during halftime.
“Take care of the basketball,” Close said. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”
While it was second-half defense that won the game for the Bruins on Friday, their offense in the second half of Sunday’s game against Washington stole the show and propelled the team to victory.
Fueled by better ball security and dominance on the boards, as they nearly doubled Washington’s rebound total, UCLA (13-2, 4-0) finally gained some separation.
“We focused more on boxing out and capitalizing on out of the area rebounds,” said redshirt senior forward Jasmine Dixon. “We know that they were small and we’re kind of big, so we just figured we could outrebound them.”
The Bruins finished with 52 second-half points and cruised to an 85-68 victory. But despite the weekend sweep, UCLA has many things it hopes to improve upon.
“I just would rather us start better. I’m proud that we have confidence in the second half. I’m proud that we made plays in the most pressurized situations because I think that speaks to our mentality as a championship-level program,” Close said.
“But there has to be a little bit more of an urgency in what we’re trying to do earlier and we need to become a better starting team.”
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