Tuesday, February 25

UCLA women’s basketball to take on Colorado in first round of Pac-12s

Senior guard Thea Lemberger, averaging 15 points this season compared to 8.6 last season, credits her success to adding moves like floaters. (Miriam Bribiesca/Daily Bruin)

Fast break transition layups, seven seconds or less that isn’t something that should be expected this Thursday when the UCLA women’s basketball team takes on Colorado for the Pac-12 tournament.

Thirty games into the season, both teams have established identities as teams predicated around a solid defense.

Just like their previous two meetings this season in which UCLA lost 61-59 and 62-42, all signs currently point toward another low-scoring affair happening in the KeyArena in Seattle, Thursday at noon.

In situations like these, each point matters even more, and every failed attempt to quantify a possession with a change in the scoreboard creates a heavier burden on the team.

Coming into the game, the coaches want to make sure the team has learned not to settle for the most comfortable option it’s something that didn’t work the last time and won’t work this time around.

“(Colorado is) a really good help-side defensive team, so you’re not probably going to score on your first option,” said coach Cori Close. “There’s got to be a patience and a persistence involved. We wanted it to be quick and easy when we went up there, and it’s just not going to be that way.”

As far as where those points are going to come from, it’s a safe bet to expect that the bulk is going to come from UCLA’s big three: sixth-year senior forward Atonye Nyingifa, sophomore guard Nirra Fields and senior guard Thea Lemberger. After the conclusion of the regular season, their combined efforts account for almost 80 percent of the points managed by the entire team.

Having to move outside of their comfort zone to score against Colorado is something the Bruin big three will inevitably have to face. But it’s not something they’re unfamiliar with; in fact, it’s what helped them get to this level of production in the first place.

Nyingifa ended last season as the top scorer for the Bruins, averaging 11.6 points per game. But she proved this season that there’s always still room for improvement at the peak.

After the conclusion of the 2013-2014 regular season, Nyingifa once again established herself as the Bruins’ top scorer. But she didn’t just beat her teammates to the top, she also beat her own record from last season.

The secret to her success lies with unlocking a new mentality within herself. It’s something she said has given her the momentum to grab more offensive rebounds and, consequently, second-chance points.

“It’s just really attacking the defense, and not being so passive,” Nyingifa said. “We are the three main scorers and sometimes the offensive rhythm flows through us, so if we don’t get it started our team usually has a harder time getting into a flow.”

Last year, Fields’ talent was enough to get her an honorable mention on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.

This year, things are a little different. She’s more than doubled her production with 17.4 points and cemented herself as a bona fide Pac-12 all-conference selection.

Ask Close what the main difference maker in Fields’ game is and the answer comes easily to her. It’s Fields’ ability to go left.

“Last year, she couldn’t dribble the ball two times with her left hand,” Close said.

It’s something that’s opened a new dimension in Fields’ game, enough to elevate her game to a level that makes her a consensus top player in the Pac-12.

Lemberger, the other starting guard, always had a firm grip on her handles; she had been slotted into a ball-handler/distributor role the year before, and that hasn’t changed much for this year.

But this season, instead of primarily being a facilitator, Lemberger has also added some offensive tools to her repertoire – moves that helped her turn a mismatch with an opposing post player into two points for the Bruins.

“I’ve put a lot of new, different things in my game in the off-season,” Lemberger said. “Definitely my finishing moves like little runners or floaters through the key.”

Avenging a 20-point deficit might seem like too steep a hill to climb, especially when that loss was only inflicted six days ago.

But the stage has already been set for a do-or-die showdown with Colorado. It’s up to the big three once again to show that they haven’t exhausted all the tricks in their scoring arsenal if they want to secure a win and avoid being sent home.

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