When UCLA and West Virginia square off Saturday for the WNIT Championship (3 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), each team has already banked the kind of insight that can only come from games played under pressure. For the Bruins (18-18) and their roster of 10 new players, the tournament has been almost reassuring – the stress and hard days of learning how to survive a Division-I campaign are more in the background, and now the team plays with confidence and a real sense of purpose about the future.
“Our non-conference schedule might have been a little ambitious for a young team like this, and we’ve learned a lot about the mental side of building a team,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team won a tight semifinal game at Michigan on Wednesday to reach the finals. “It takes longer to rebuild confidence than it does to just keep it. But we have a confidence now that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Now, we want to take advantage of every opportunity, and capture these pieces of the foundation to build the program.”
UCLA is 8-2 in its past 10 games; junior guard Nirra Fields is averaging 20 points per game in the WNIT, and freshman point guard Jordin Canada is playing at her highest level of the year, averaging almost 13 points per game in the tournament. Kari Korver, cousin of Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver, has gone 15-of-30 from 3-point range in the WNIT.
At one point, the Bruins were 9-13, and the Pac-12 season was no cakewalk as the team finished 8-10 overall. But Close knew any concrete signs of progress were going to take a while.
“My coaching style begins with, there’s no substitute for quality relationships. We’ve put in a lot of individual time; you have to learn about them as people, so you do things like go to lunch together and learn about their life,” Close said. “It’s been an art project, figuring out what the team needs from moment to moment. And I’ve not always been sure. You can pat them on the back, but sometimes that needs to be a little lower and a little harder. During the WNIT, I’d say I’ve been more about the tough love.
“I think we’re finally seeing all that we’ve been pouring in, is starting to pour back out. I’ve never wavered on the long-term, and it’s been fun to dream about where this team can go in the future.”
West Virginia (23-14) features a roster with more experience, which has made the Mountaineers’ struggle with consistency a bit more baffling. A demanding season in the Big 12 exposed some holes; West Virginia coach Mike Carey was agitated enough about his team’s mindset that he refused to allow them to practice in WVU gear at one point.
But the team has found enough mettle and faith to pull off back-to-back overtime victories to reach the WNIT title game. Senior Averee Fields is wrapping up her career on a high note, scoring 59 points and reeling in 31 rebounds in the last three games; junior Bria Holmes is always a factor and has scored 702 points this year (second-most in school history); and sophomore center Lanay Montgomery blew up in the semifinal win versus Temple, grabbing 24 rebounds (two off the school and WNIT single-game record) and blocking eight shots.
The Mountaineers will have to work through the oddity of the game not being at their home arena in Morgantown; a scheduling conflict has forced the game to be moved to the Charleston Civic Center. But at this point, WVU sees a WNIT title as a way to ensure there’s a slam-dunk positive coming out of a tough season.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Montgomery after the semifinal victory. “We’ve worked so hard and our season didn’t go as planned. But we’re here, and we have a chance to end our season with a win so that gives us a lot of momentum going into next year, just knowing we finished off the season strong.”
"We’re playing hard right now, and I’m extremely proud of the girls,” added Carey. “They’ve got great attitudes, they are coming to work and they are focused every day and that’s something you want your teams to do.”
UCLA: The 2015 WNIT marks the first time the Bruins have played in the event … Eight of UCLA’s non-conference opponents this season were ranked in the preseason Top 25, making the schedule the toughest in the nation … The Bruins have pulled together back-to-back years of recruiting classes ranked in the top five nationally … UCLA is averaging almost 16 turnovers per game, but the team makes up for it in some ways with defense, holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field.
WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers played Marshall earlier this year at the Charleston Civic Center, earning a 69-56 victory to move to 9-1 on the season … WVU won 19 games at home this season, a school record … This is the second time West Virginia has reached the WNIT title game. The Mountaineers lost to Missouri State, 78-70, in 2005 … WVU is the sixth Big 12 program to play in a WNIT final … Bria Holmes is hoping to work out of a shooting slump; she’s made just 15 of her last 51 field goal attempts.
WNIT NOTES: Missouri’s Morgan Eye tied the all-time single-game tournament mark of nine 3-pointers made (vs. Kansas State, March 22) ... The 2014 Postseason WNIT featured a thrilling finish, as Rutgers sank a layup with 2 seconds remaining to secure a 56-54 victory against UTEP in front of more than 12,200 fans at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas ... Previous Big 12 schools to win the Postseason WNIT are Oklahoma State (2012) and Kansas State (2006). Previous Pac-12 programs to claim the title are California (2010) and Oregon (2002).