By UCLA Athletics
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Freshman Jordin Canada scored a career-high 31 points to lead the UCLA women’s basketball team past West Virginia, 62-60, to win the 2015 Women’s NIT Championship on Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center.Canada connected on 9 of 19 shots from the field and made 13 of 15 free throws, helping UCLA (19-18) win its sixth consecutive game. She was the Bruins’ only player to score in double figures, shattering her previous career high of 19 points, in addition to tallying four steals and two assists.
West Virginia’s Averee Fields led the Mountaineers with 17 points. WVU also received 14 points from Bria Holmes and 10 points from Linda Stepney.
The Bruins scored the first four points of the game and led 12-9 on a pair of free throws by Kelli Hayes at the 12:32 mark. But West Virginia would go on a 15-6 run to build their largest lead of six points (24-18) with 5:51 left in the first half. Jordin Canada would tie the game on a layup at 26-26 (1:18). Canada would get her third steal of the first half and race down the floor, beating the buzzer to give UCLA a 30-28 lead at the break. Her 14 points in the first half led all scorers.
UCLA took the lead for good with fewer than four minutes to play in the game. West Virginia’s Crystal Leary made one of two free throws with 4:31 to play, pushing the Mountaineers ahead, 53-50.
Kari Korver, who finished with five points and six rebounds, nailed a 3-pointer at the 4:19 mark to tie the contest 53-53.
After a missed jump shot by West Virginia, Canada made a layup with 3:45 remaining to put UCLA ahead by a 55-53 margin. An ensuing steal and layup by Kelli Hayes gave UCLA a 57-53 advantage with 3:19 remaining.
West Virginia trimmed its deficit to two points (57-55) with less than three minutes to play. UCLA added to its lead with 49 seconds to play, as Monique Billings made one of two free throws, putting the Bruins ahead, 58-55.
A layup by Stepney cut UCLA’s lead to 58-57 with 44 seconds to play, before Canada answered with a layup at the 25-second mark. Canada helped UCLA ice the victory with a steal and two ensuing free throws with 19 seconds remaining to put UCLA ahead, 61-57. The Bruins held on in the final moments for the 62-60 win.
Prior to Saturday's victory over West Virginia, UCLA had not won a postseason tournament since upsetting Stanford to win the 2006 Pac-10 Tournament. This marked the Bruins’ first-ever WNIT Tournament appearance and was the latest UCLA had ever played a basketball game.
Nicole Elmblad (Michigan)
Tyonna Williams (Temple)
Averee Fields (West Virginia)
Nirra Fields (UCLA)
Bria Holmes (West Virginia)
MVP-Jordin Canada (UCLA)
Teams that gain a foothold in the Postseason WNIT understand the ripple effects of each tournament victory, where extra games can help speed the maturation of a young roster or help a program figure out what didn’t quite fall together right and how to better set the table for next season.
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).
WEST VIRGINIA 66, TEMPLE 58
Morgantown, WV – Cue Country Roads. The West Virginia women’s basketball team wins in OT, again, this time in the WNIT semifinals. The Mountaineers defeated Temple 66-58 in front of a home crowd of just over 3,000 fans to advance to the championship.
WVU fans will get to see one more game as the Mountaineers will host UCLA in the championship on Saturday, April 4 at 3 p.m. ET. The game will be played 2.5 hours south at Charleston Civic Center and will be nationally televised live on CBS Sports Network.
WVU had monster games from Bria Holmes (22 points) and Averee Fields (20 points) accounting for 42 of the team’s 66 points. Lanay Montgomery finished with a game-high 24 rebounds, just two shy of tying the WNIT single-game record. Montgomery also managed eight blocks in the win.
Tyonna Williams led the Owls with 15 points and Tanaya Atkinson finished with 10. Temple hit nine three-pointers on the night and held West Virginia to only one.
Both teams struggled at times from the field with WVU finishing 22-of-64 and TU only hitting 21-of-71.
Temple held a five-point lead at halftime (31-26) and came out hot early in the second half to go up 38-30 with 15:36 on the clock. However, West Virginia went on a 6-0 run triggered by a Holmes made jumper and free throws from Bre McDonald and Fields.
The Mountaineers trailed 53-51 with 12 seconds on the clock, before Crystal Leary stole the ball and dished it to Holmes who was fouled. Holmes hit both free throws to tie the game. In OT, it was all Mountaineers who took a quick lead and never looked back.
UCLA 69, MICHIGAN 65
Ann Arbor, MI – The UCLA women’s basketball team goes into Ann Arbor and knocks off the Michigan Wolverines 69-65 to advance to the WNIT championship game.
Three Bruin players scored in double figures including a team-high 19 points from Kari Korver. Korver hit five three-pointers and was 7-of-9 from the field. Jordin Canada added 16 points and dished out nine assists; Nirra Fields chipped in 13 points and pulled down five boards. UCLA improves to 18-18 on the season.
Michigan’s Shannon Smith scored a game-high 20 points; Nicole Elmblad chipped in 16 points; Katelynn Flaherty and Cyesha Goree finished with 14 and 11 points respectively. The Wolverines conclude the season with a 20-15 record.
Both teams carried leads throughout and the game included multiple lead changes. UCLA held a slight advantage at halftime, 32-31. The game was tied at 63s with 1:39 on the clock, before UCLA’s Fields hit a jumper to give the Bruins a two-point lead. Canada then sealed the win for UCLA hitting 4-of-4 from the free-throw line in the final 21 seconds.
UCLA will travel to West Virginia to face the Mountaineers in the WNIT championship game. Tip is slated for 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 4. The game will be nationally televised live on CBS Sports Network.