This post was updated March 25 at 9:59 p.m.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A late fourth-quarter comeback came a little too late to keep the Bruins’ season alive.
No. 3-seeded UCLA (27-8) fell to No. 1-seeded Mississippi State (36-1) 89-73 in the Elite Eight on Sunday afternoon, closing the doors on a historic season led by the Bruins’ decorated senior class.
“It’s just really difficult to, on the one hand get through your disappointment because we believed and expected to win,” said coach Cori Close. “(But) at the same time there is no way to reflect the depth and pride of my love to the young women … as well as our entire program.”
The Bruins, who trailed by 16 points at halftime and as many as 18 in the second half, strung together a comeback surge in the fourth quarter, chipping away at the deficit until it was just a six-point game with 6:46 left.
“In the second half we calmed down a little bit,” said senior guard Jordin Canada. “And we knew that we were going to get back in this game if we just continued to attack and run our offense.”
The contest started out knotted at 6-6, but the Bruins went scoreless for about three minutes. The Bulldogs capitalized with an 11-0 run, with six of those points coming from center Teaira McCowan.
In the second quarter, the Bruins did not make a field goal until forward Michaela Onyenwere made a layup with just 1:36 left in the half. The freshman went on to score UCLA’s only two field goals of the quarter.
“I thought we executed our plays pretty well, but we just couldn’t make shots (in the second quarter). … That’s what it came down to,” Canada said. “In the second half we stayed poised and didn’t let their pressure get to us, but we just couldn’t knock down shots.”
Midway through the second quarter, Canada said her left arm got caught in between two Mississippi State players while driving to the basket, resulting in what the trainers thought was a sprained elbow.
Canada was constantly grabbing the arm while her facial expressions showed her pain, but the senior guard had no excuses.
“Just have to go back next week and get MRIs and X-rays and make sure that’s exactly what it is or better,” Canada said. “(But) I didn’t let that affect me. I tried to play as hard as I could in the second half and gave it all that I had.”
Canada, who still played 36 minutes, finished the night with 23 points, five assists and eight rebounds, logging 20 or more points in eight of her final 10 collegiate games.
When Canada went down, Close said she was impressed with how junior transfer guard Japreece Dean stepped up. She finished with 16 points off the bench, including a 4-of-9 clip from downtown.
“I think (Dean) has had a great NCAA Tournament and I think it should give her confidence moving forward,” Close said. “She can hold her head up high, (because) I thought these were her best games of the year for us – on the defensive and offensive end.”
Canada and senior forward Monique Billings started the game aggressive offensively, throwing up 19 of the Bruins’ first 31 shot attempts in the first half, but the duo combined to make only four field goals. UCLA got outrebounded 23-15 and allowed five 3-pointers, trailing 42-26 going into halftime.
Rebounding was a problem, especially for Bruins’ post players due to the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-7-inch center. McCowan had 11 rebounds by halftime and 21 on the night. Billings and redshirt junior forward Lajahna Drummer, who usually combine to average 16.5 boards, had just three at the break.
Getting outrebounded by just four by the end of the third period, the Bruins made up ground on the glass. But Bulldog guard Victoria Vivians registered a game-high 24 points while McCowan logged 23 points, helping the Bulldogs shut down the Bruins’ runs and close out the game.
“(McCowan) is a monster and I knew that coming into the game,” Billings said. “It’s tough playing against really big girls, but I fought … (and) it was a challenge.”
Billings shot just 1-of-9 from the field in the first half, but was determined to turn it around and help cut into Mississippi State’s lead.
In the final quarter, Billings scored three straight field goals while Canada scored the next three to propel an 11-2 UCLA run. But that was the closest UCLA would get. Mississippi State drained 10 free throws to end the game and punch its second consecutive ticket to the Final Four.
“Mississippi State is a great team. They executed at critical times and I give them a lot of credit,” Close said. “I wanted to have a chance to coach (our) group for another day, but the reality is they have had a historic season.”