Coach Cori Close has harped all season long on wanting to grow the game of women’s basketball.
“As usual, I always thank you as journalists … for telling the stories of our players because it is so important for our game,” Close said in her opening statement following the loss to top-seeded Oregon.
Even the little girls selling Girl Scout Cookies inside KeyArena were given an inspiring atmosphere to witness: the women’s basketball Pac-12 Tournament.
The tournament is the only time of the year when teams play back-to-back games until they lose, diving after every loose ball in hopes to survive another day.
Up until the end of the semifinals on day three of the four-day tournament, seven of the 10 games were decided by 10 points or fewer, four being decided by 3 or fewer.
“One of my favorite things about this conference is that there are so many high-level teams that play so many different styles,” Close said. “And what that does is it really prepares you for the NCAA Tournament.”
Fourth-seeded UCLA women’s basketball (23-7, 14-4 Pac-12) persevered in two of those four games, but each unfolded a different meaning.
For the seniors – guard Jordin Canada, forward Monique Billings and guard Kelli Hayes – the 77-74 victory over fifth-seeded Cal meant that they were one game closer to a Pac-12 Tournament championship – something the high-profile trio had one last chance to accomplish.
But after a gut-wrenching 65-62 loss to top-seeded Oregon on Saturday, the three seniors were left with a sour feeling that they had tasted less than two weeks ago when they fell short in overtime to the Ducks.
“Tonight we fought,” Canada said after Saturday’s loss. “But we didn’t fight hard enough.”
The seniors, who made up UCLA’s first-ever No. 1 recruiting class, were the first to buy into Close’s mission to develop recruits into not only elite basketball players, but also young women off the court.
“Having the No. 1 recruiting class, that’s a lot of pressure,” Hayes said. “But we’ve faced a lot of trials and tribulations through freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, and now senior year … all that work we’ve been through.”
As the hope of playing for a conference title dissipated on Saturday, the tears shed by both Close and a handful of players depicted their hunger for something UCLA women’s basketball has only been able to do once in program history.
But their senior seasons aren’t over yet.
“Getting to the Sweet 16 (for the past) two years in a row, you realize you want more. You don’t want to continue falling short, and I think this year we’ve learned from the past three years of realizing we don’t want to fall short this year,” Hayes said. “This is our last year doing it with the three of us.”
As of last week, UCLA is projected to be a three-seed in the Kansas City region of the NCAA Tournament, which kicks off March 16.
If the selection committee keeps the Bruins as a top-4 seed during the 2018 Selection Show on March 12, UCLA will host the first two rounds of the tournament at Pauley Pavilion.
“It’s about wanting to work through your mistakes,” Canada said. “(We are just) trying to lead a group of girls that are in the locker room and just trying to have fun and embrace every moment.”
After stringing together the best record in their collegiate careers leading up to the national tournament, the three seniors have an opportunity to make a deep run.
But most importantly, they have molded the program into a top-10 team nationally, and their names will continue to inspire others.