Caldwell, UCLA chase title hopes
Bruins' 27 wins this season tie for program's second best
Five UCLA teams call Pauley Pavilion ‘home.’
Of UCLA’s nation-leading 106 NCAA team championships, 29 were earned by those five programs. The list is broken down among four sports: men’s volleyball leads the way with 19 titles, followed by men’s basketball with 11, women’s gymnastics with six, and women’s volleyball with three.
Women’s basketball is missing from that list. The third-year head coach of the Bruins, Nikki Caldwell, is working hard to change that fact.
In the summer of 2008, Caldwell took over a program that was coming off of a 16-15 season and had been out of the Pac-10 title race for years.
“I knew that the cupboards were not bare,” said Caldwell of her decision to remake the Bruins women’s basketball program. “The other thing that was very attractive was the standard of excellence in the classroom here at UCLA, and having followed UCLA and played against them when I was at Tennessee, you know that some of the best players in the country come out of the state of California, so from a grassroots level, that’s very attractive as well. I felt like the talent was here, that there were pieces to the puzzle. It felt right. It felt like it would be an unbelievable experience, and it has been.”
Caldwell’s UCLA experience thus far has yielded rapid visible improvement. A 19-12 record in her first season was followed by a 25-9 mark and NCAA tournament appearance last year. This season, the Bruins enter tournament play with a 27-4 record. Three of those losses are to top-seeded Stanford.
Senior Doreena Campbell has lived that change over her four-year career with the Bruins.
“Coach Nikki came in after my freshman year,” said Campbell. “Ever since then, we’ve been rebuilding. We’ve gotten better. Last year, we went to the tournament and that was exciting. This year, we want to see how far we can go.”
Caldwell came in with a plan and along with her entire coaching staff, has put that plan into action.
“First we had a vision,” said Caldwell. “Then we took the necessary steps to have the team buy in to that vision. Ultimately, it’s about them. We promote a family atmosphere where you have to look after each other just like you have to look after each other on the basketball court. To me, that was one of the things that we wanted: to make sure that we were givers to each other.”
“One of the big things that she has done is instill discipline,” said Campbell. “That was one thing that was missing a little bit here. There’s a lot more intensity now.”
Caldwell has seen her team develop on and off the court, and it is paying dividends in wins and losses.
“My staff does a phenomenal job of teaching the game on the court,” said Caldwell. “Increasing their ‘basketball IQ,’ teaching them the intangibles of the game, things that don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet. Teaching them how to compete at the highest level possible in practice so that in a game it will be easier. Our staff’s ability to make them accountable not only for their own actions but the actions of their teammates, those are the things that have enabled us to get this program moving to that national level of competition.”
The Bruins enter the tournament ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 in the Coaches poll. This is the first time a UCLA women’s basketball team has held a top-10 spot in the AP poll at the start of the tournament since the 1980-81 season (No. 7 entering the AIAW West Regionals), the year before women’s sports came under the NCAA umbrella.
This team’s current total of 27 wins ties for the second-best total in program history with the 1977-78 team that captured an AIAW National Championship behind the play of Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale.
UCLA’s NCAA tournament history is limited compared with the other athletic tenants of Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins No. 3 seed in the 2011 NCAA Division I Championship matches the best seed in program history, awarded to the 1999 Bruins that reached the Elite Eight. In lieu of players with championship experience, the Bruins will look to their coach, who owns three NCAA Championship rings, one as a player on Tennessee’s 1991 team and two as an assistant coach for the Lady Vols in 2007 and ’08.
“I am a competitor,” said Caldwell. “From the day that I started playing organized basketball some 32 years ago, I’ve always competed at the highest level. When you’re in this leadership role, first of all I want to give back to this game that has provided me so much. In doing so, I don’t ever want any player of mine to cut corners. I teach them to have less quit in them because that’s how I played. That’s how I coach. That keeps me in tune to what needs to take place every day.
An 86-83 double-overtime win at then-No. 12 Notre Dame on November 18 may very well have been the turning point of the season for the Bruins.
“Our team last year would not have won that game,” said Caldwell. “I believe that this team showed early signs of them being a team that’s on a mission. Their ability to win on the road in double overtime in a hostile environment with all the odds stacked against you, I thought that showed a different level of maturity in this team that we didn’t have a year ago. Our ability to go through our conference and only lose to Stanford in conference play, I think that shows a level of maturity that we’re becoming accustomed to. That was probably a turning point for us and we’ve been keeping them focused ever since.”
That focus is strictly on playing a team game, a fact of which Caldwell is keenly aware.
“It’s interesting,” said Caldwell, “one of my best friends, her husband said to me one day ‘You know what, Nikki? You’ve got a bunch of nobodies who are somebody.’ And I thought that was interesting when he said that because he was right. Nobody really knows the names of our kids. We don’t have the big-name players. We don’t have a Chiney Ogwumike or Maya Moore or Brittney Griner.
“We don’t have that big-name player on our team. Maybe (junior forward Jasmine) Dixon is on an All-America watch list, but this team is playing like it’s one of the best teams in the country. When you look at where we’re ranked, where our RPI is, this team is doing things by committee. They’re doing it as a unit with no major star player. Any given day our star could be Rhema Gardner coming off the bench or Darxia Morris a senior guard or sophomore Atonye Nyingifa. I do like the fact that there’s not one player on our team that has to feel like they have to carry that weight that we’re all jointly doing it.”
The biggest hurdle remaining for Caldwell’s Bruins looms as a potential opponent in the Spokane Regional on March 28. The Bruins are ready.
“We’ve played [Stanford] three times. Why not four?” said Campbell of the feeling in the room when UCLA’s seed and region were announced on Monday evening. “Let’s go at them again. If we can beat them now, this will be the one that counts.”