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UCLA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

UCLA women ready for the next step next year

Season ends in the second round again, but Coach Nikki Caldwell says Bruins gained valuable experience.

March 22, 2011|By Gary Klein

The result was the same: a second-round defeat in the NCAA tournament.

But for members of UCLA's women's basketball team, it felt different.

The Bruins' loss at Gonzaga on Monday night marked the end of one of the most successful seasons in the program's history, a season that showed the Bruins are moving closer to becoming the national power that Nikki Caldwell envisioned when she took over as coach three years ago.

"We're gaining 'We belong' experience," Caldwell said.

UCLA women get away message in second-round loss to Gonzaga, 89-75

In a quiet hallway outside the locker room at Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center, Caldwell and her players reflected on how the Bruins built upon last year's season-ending loss to Nebraska.

UCLA won 26 regular-season games, a school record. The Bruins lost once to Louisiana State and three times to second-ranked Stanford. They were confident they had learned enough to go further in the NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, the selection committee made them a No. 3 seeded-team in the Spokane Regional, putting them on a collision course with Gonzaga and history-making point guard Courtney Vandersloot, playing her final home game.

After defeating a stubborn Montana team in the first round, UCLA was undeterred by a partisan crowd in forging a halftime lead against Gonzaga. But the Bulldogs rallied behind Vandersloot, the only player in NCAA history to amass 2,000 points and 1,000 assists.

"This loss is one that stings, but in a different way," Caldwell said of the 89-75 defeat. "I know this team could go farther."

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So where do the Bruins go from here?

Senior guards Doreena Campbell and Darxia Morris were cornerstones of Caldwell's rebuilding effort. UCLA also will lose Christina Nzekwe and Nina Earl, who have been valuable reserves.

"You couldn't ask for a better senior class when you're looking at leadership, heart, passion and just being great teammates," Caldwell said. "This journey of ours has been fun."

The Bruins expect to return an experienced nucleus, including forwards Jasmine Dixon, Markel Walker and Atonye Nyingifa and guard Rebekah Gardner.

UCLA also has signed a highly regarded recruiting class that includes frontcourt players Justine Hartman of Brea Olinda High, Kacy Swain of Playa del Rey St. Bernard and Sheila Boykin of Long Beach Poly as well as guard Moriah Faulk of Santa Monica.

"I think it's in great hands," Campbell of the program she helped revitalize. "They have four top recruits coming and I think they can keep it going."

Gardner said the Bruins were ready to take the next step.

"Getting to the next round at least is going to be a major goal," she said.

Caldwell wants that and more.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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