PAINTER: UCLA women’s basketball becoming well-heeled under Caldwell
UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell brought a certain panache and flair to the women’s basketball program. anyone who can stomp and pace the baseline in 5-inch Bebe pumps without stumbling earns immediate respect.
Caldwell had UCLA’s attention before she uttered a command or physically showed her players how to box out during practice.
During her introductory news conference three years ago, a cell phone rang and interrupted the event. It belonged to one of her new players, and Caldwell sent a trademark stare in the team’s direction. Things would be different with her.
And for UCLA, that’s winning.
Caldwell had UCLA on the brink of defeating Stanford in the final of the Pac-10 Tournament at Staples Center on Saturday but the upset came up just short. The Bruins held a nine-point halftime lead with a patient offense and solid interior defense early but succumbed to the Cardinal’s pressure defense and productive transition offense in a 64-55 loss.
UCLA has lost only four games this season – three of those were at the hands of Stanford and the other to LSU – but Caldwell has UCLA primed to take the Bruins deep into the NCAA Tournament. That’s not something the men’s team can say after a ghoulish loss to Oregon in the quarterfinals of the same tournament.
“When coach Nikki first came in, I was just intimidated,” senior guard Darxia Morris said. “I was like, she came from a top-notch school (at Tennessee), especially under Pat Summitt. but we were excited.”
UCLA’s turnaround has been quick and true in Caldwell’s three seasons as coach. The Bruins, ranked No. 7 in The Associated Press poll, shelved the mediocrity that engulfed the program. The Bruins are winning recruiting battles and have such solid footing they have the goods to take on Stanford for the top recruits now. Campbell Hall High junior Lauren Holiday – whose brother Jrue plays for the Philadelphia 76ers and also went to UCLA – was sitting courtside. she was also there to watch older brother Justin, who plays for Washington, which won the men’s Pac-10 Tournament.
You know how the climate has changed at UCLA? forward Markel Walker was so upset about Saturday’s loss to Stanford that she covered her face with her shirt while Stanford was celebrating on the court and cutting down the nets.
And while flanked by seniors Morris and Doreena Campbell – who were on the last UCLA team that beat Stanford in 2008 in Westwood – Caldwell teared up.
“You’re not supposed to have favorites, but these are two of my favorites probably that I’ve coached in my entire career,” Caldwell said. “These two have meant so much. just taking on so much responsibility for the success of this program. They’ve been very coachable. They’ve been a joy to be around.”
Just like Caldwell has been in Westwood.
If she were on “American Idol,” they’d gush about her star quality. When she’s on her motorcycle riding for cancer awareness, you see her big heart. And when she’s on a local television set analyzing basketball games, you feel her knowledge and love for the game.
And when you’re in her huddle, you can’t help but own that confidence.
The belief she’s instilled at UCLA has had more impact than any gameplan she’s drawn up. she has UCLA believing it can win a championship, and she found that belief was finally embodied with her players in a double overtime win at Notre Dame in November.
“The team last year would’ve lost that game,” Caldwell said. “We wouldn’t have gone to overtime. but you could see it.”
It was her confidence in their eyes.
“They hadn’t been around someone like me or my staff,” Caldwell said. “They respected my staff and where we came from but they didn’t know what to expect. `Who is she? I’ve seen her pedigree, and I know about coach Summitt at Tennessee.’ they associated her with us, and that’s a good thing.”
Caldwell was an assistant on Tennessee’s championship teams in 2007 and 2008. Then she came to UCLA and brought that swagger with her.
UCLA should earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the seedings are announced Monday.
“We should be a lock for a No. 2 seed,” Caldwell said. “Just look at our RPI and three of our four losses came to the No. 2 team in the country.”
UCLA lost against Stanford on Saturday, but the Bruins’ program is back. And that’s winning.
Doing it in style – and in five-inch heels – is a bonus.
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