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A Quiet Turnaround For UCLA Women
Despite lack of attention, Bruins had the best season of any local team
By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor
There's been quite an uproar about the level of West Coast basketball being down this year. The Pac-10 was criticized up and down the coast, across the country and even in these pages.
Overlooked was the fact that the UCLA's women's basketball team quietly had their best season in over a decade and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday.
It says a lot that this is the first story this reporter has done on women's college basketball in four years. And it's a disservice to the young women pursuing that dream of playing in the WNBA.
Enter UCLA, who has undergone a remarkable turnaround in head coach Nikki Caldwell's second season at the helm. They finished the season 25-9, the most they've had since the 1998-99 season, and finished second in the Pac-10, tying a school record with 15 wins.
"I am very proud of this group. They actually started to buy in this system last summer and it has paid off for them," Caldwell said after the Bruins won their NCAA Tournament opener against North Carolina State.
A former Tennessee player and assistant, Caldwell was named Pac-10 Coach of the year, only the second coach in school history to earn the honor.
"I tell the team it is about them. They allowed me to earn this award," she said.
In a short time, she has given the program a renewed optimism as they expect the program to contend for several years in the Pac-10.
It also helps that the team got a lift from sophomore transfer Jasmine Dixon, who returned home after transferring from Rutgers before the end of last season.
Dixon, a former All-American and three-time state champion at Long Beach Poly, gave the team a lift when she became eligible on December 15. The Bruins went 18-4 while she averaged 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds - both team highs.
It peaked with her recording the school's second 30-20 game as she recorded 31 points and 20 rebounds on the road against Oregon, reminding fans why she was one of the most decorated prep players in recent California memory.
She and junior guard Doreena Campbell made the All Pac-10 First Team, giving the school multiple all-conference players for the first time since 2006 when they had three.
It's given the program a much needed buzz it's lacked since current WNBA stars Noelle Quinn (Sparks) and Lisa Willis (New York Liberty) played from 2003-2007.
But more importantly, they give the program hope for even more success next year. Freshman guard Markel Walker has already made an impact being named to the All Pac-10 Freshman team.
Juniors Darxia Morris and Nina Earl have proven to be valuable contributors for the second year in a row and sophomore Atonye Nyingifa, an All Pac-10 freshman team selection last year, will return healthy after a knee injury.
It's all under the watch of Caldwell, who's slowly bringing the winning ways she's inherited from the legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt.