SEATTLE — Despite earning some impressive wins during the regular season, UCLA could not solve the elite of the Pac-12.
At least until Saturday night when the No. 14 Bruins took down fifth-ranked California in stunning fashion.
Markel Walker matched her season high with 23 points, Jasmine Dixon added 15 points and 12 rebounds, and UCLA advanced to its fourth Pac-12 tournament title game with a dominant 70-58 win.
“This win means a lot to us because they are such a formidable opponent and we’ve respected them all year,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “... But I’m proud of our basketball team.”
The Bruins will seek their second Pac-12 crown in Sunday night’s final against either No. 4 Stanford or No. 18 Colorado. UCLA won its only Pac-12 tournament title in 2006 when it pulled off upsets of Arizona State and Stanford to win the title. This will be the Bruins’ third appearance in the title game in the last four years.
UCLA was efficient offensively and California could not solve the Bruins’ zone defense. California (28-3) shot just 29 percent and saw its 16-game win streak come to an end.
The loss also ruined a possible third showdown between California and Bay Area rival Stanford in the conference title game. Instead it’ll be the Bruins playing for the title — and deservedly so.
UCLA avenged two regular-season losses to Cal, including a 28-point loss at home in mid-February. UCLA has now won six straight since getting swept by the Bay Area schools. Walker made 10 of 13 shots and grabbed seven rebounds. Alyssia Brewer added 13 points and Atonye Nyingifa scored 11 for the Bruins.
UCLA played a nearly flawless first half, leading by as many as 22. The Bruins shot 55 percent, were perfect at the free throw line and had assists on 10 of their 15 field goals. Walker had 13 in the first half and came up with two of UCLA’s seven steals. The Bruins outscored Cal 22-6 in the paint in the first half and 42-22 for the game.
That was the game plan UCLA tried to use against California in the first meeting back in January when the Bears pulled out a 70-65 win at home. That game plan was out of the picture when the teams played in Los Angeles about a month ago when the Bears used their transition offense to play with a lead.
“I thought our guards handled the pressure and we got the ball in places that we wanted this time,” Close said. “At Cal, we let their pressure get to us, even at our place as well. I’m not sure the game plan changed so much, it’s more that we executed well at the beginning.”
The Bruins led by as many as 26 — the biggest deficit California faced in any game this season. The 14 points in the first half for the Bears were a season-worst. Brittany Boyd led California with 18 points, but the Bears may have seen any hope of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament come to an end.
“We didn’t see this coming,” Cal’s Layshia Clarendon said after scoring 14 points on 6 of 22 shooting. “(The Bruins) were well-prepared. They gave us punches in the first half. You can’t give a good team a 21-point lead; they’re just too good.”
Clarendon was part of a miserable shooting night for the Bears, especially the opening 20 minutes. California’s horrific first half featured a stretch of nine straight missed shots during an 8-minute span without a field goal and zero ability to solve UCLA’s zone defense. The Bears missed all 11 3-point attempts, shot just 20 percent and were dominated on the boards.
Clarendon was the most frustrated. The Bears’ leading scorer got plenty of open looks, but missed eight of her final nine shots in the half. Eliza Pierre’s steal and layup with 2:41 left in the half finally snapped the Bears shooting skid and that basket finally got California into double figures.
It didn’t get much better in the second half. California missed its first 13 3-point attempts total before Boyd hit from deep with 14:45 remaining. By that point, the Bruins still led by 21 and the deficit never reached single-digits.
“We have to use this to help us and we will,” California coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.