Sophomore guard Jordin Canada sank the first of two free throws for UCLA. The substitutes rushed onto the court and senior guard Nirra Fields made her way to the bench with 22 seconds remaining. The crowd greeted her with a standing ovation, rewarding her for a bravado-filled performance.
“It was very emotional,” Fields said. “My brother came down to watch me for the first time and it’s my last game at home. Everyone’s expecting a lot. It’s hard to play your best (under those circumstances).”
Regardless of her emotions, Fields pulled out a solid performance to help No. 14 UCLA (22-7, 14-4 Pac-12) to a seemingly comfortable 74-61 upset victory over No. 9 Arizona State (25-5, 16-2 Pac-12) to end the regular season.
Three seniors were honored by the UCLA women’s basketball team before Sunday’s game – Lauren Holiday, Kacy Swain and Fields. Of them, only Fields was able to play.
Perhaps inspired by the large crowd of nearly 7,000, Fields more than filled the void created by the team’s absences. She ended with a game-high 24 points and added eight rebounds and four steals, coming up with important plays in pivotal sequences during the game.
“Nirra Fields hit a number of pressurized shots today,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close. “I thought that was very fitting during her Senior Day.”
She was not the only one who ended the regular season on a high note, as her backcourt partner – Canada – also served up an outstanding performance. Canada piled on 22 points and five assists.
A combined 46 points, nine rebounds and eight assists is further proof that they might be the best guard duo in the country. Coach Close challenged anyone to say otherwise.
“Find me a better backcourt than Canada and Fields,” Close said.
In spite of the numbers put up by those two and the double-digit final deficit, the Sun Devils pushed the Bruins on nearly every possession. Their collective physicality made easy baskets difficult to come by.
Arizona State’s resilience kept them from being discouraged when they trailed by 17 late in the third quarter. Possession after possession, they pushed the ball into the paint to mount an impressive comeback.
Center Quinn Dornstauder led the way for the Sun Devils. She ended the night tied for the lead in points with 24 and grabbed five rebounds. Another key figure for Arizona State was forward Sophie Brunner, who picked up 10 points and 13 rebounds.
Through the effort of these two in the paint, Arizona State cut the deficit to five with less than two minutes remaining.
“Arizona State is such a good team,” Close said. “They are so disciplined and they close out games with such poise.”
At this point in the game, when the Sun Devils held all of the momentum, sophomore forward Monique Billings stepped up for the Bruins. She was a perfect six-for-six from the field, but arguably her most important shot came with 1:32 left in the game.
She moved one way, then the other and finally hooked in a close range basket. UCLA’s lead was increased to seven and the team was out of danger.
“We talk to each other constantly,” Canada said, when asked about her on-court chemistry with Billings. “When she’s open, she’ll tell me. She’ll say if I missed her and viceversa.”
Coach Close saw Billings’ clinical performance, which resulted in a double-double tally of 14 points and 10 rebounds, as a testament to her growth.
“I don’t think there’s a more improved forward in the country,” Close said.
Not lost in the shuffle of the sparkling individual displays from Fields, Canada and Billings were the team’s perimeter defense. The Bruins limited the Sun Devils’ guards to 2-of-22 from the field and 2-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Next up for UCLA is a trip to Seattle for the Pac-12 Tournament, where the Bruins earned the No. 3 seed.
Also, the victory over the Sun Devils puts them in a great position to finish ranked in the top 16 and allows them to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m excited,” Canada said. “We’re in a much better place than we were last year and we’re a lot more confident.”
Email Bribach at [email protected] or tweet him at @WinBribach.