As football bowl season starts, the Lady Vols play their penultimate untelevised game against UCLA. At this time last year, this game appeared to be a matchup between Summitt and her former player and heir apparent Nikki Caldwell, but LSU's unrefusable offer has postponed that game for another day. (Fun Fact: LSU beat UCLA last 58-41 Tuesday by holding UCLA to 31% shooting.) In the meantime, UCLA is a team that is on the rebound from some down years. Caldwell had been working on the talent level prior to departing, so much of UCLA's depth is found in their underclassmen, who are still being molded by new head coach Cori Close.
After the jump, we'll take a closer look at the matchup and the players.
As is the case in many Lady Vols games, Tennessee will have an advantage in height and length. In previous games, teams have defended the interior height by using zone defenses, and UCLA should look to do the same. (When Rutgers opened in man defense, Tennessee placed both Rutgers posts in early foul trouble.) UCLA does not have a true post presence yet, though that will change next year when former Lady Vols Alyssia Brewer can play. But this year, she'll have to watch her current and former teammates from the bench.
UCLA's main threat is Atonye Nyingifa, whose difficult to pronounce name is matched by her difficult to understand profile. She's a 5'-11" starting forward on a team with a 6'-1" starting guard and leads the team with 9.6 rebounds/game. She is undoubtedly the key to UCLA's success: in games the Bruins have won, she had double-digit rebounds every time; when UCLA has lost, she has had 5, 6, and 3 rebounds. When Tennessee plays man defense, she will likely draw attention from Glory Johnson.
After Nyingifa, Rebekah Gardner is the other invaluable player on the team, leading in points per game and second in assists. Additionally, Gardner and Nyingifa account for nearly half of UCLA's steals on the year (17 and 18, respectively, out of 75). She is a tall guard who is usually a matchup problem for teams, but Tennessee has the height and athleticism to stay with her. After Nyingifa, this is the matchup to watch.
On offense, UCLA suffers from similar ball control issues that Tennessee has seen without Ariel. The Lady Bruins' 0.7 A/TO should be particularly appealing to Tennessee. Their lack of height has also made rebounding difficult against tougher competition, and Tennessee has no excuse not to press this advantage. LSU shut them down with zone defense, West Virginia outrebounded them 47-26, and Baylor did what Baylor does: induce a season-high foul count on their home floor.
On defense, UCLA fares much better. Baylor score 83 and San Diega State scores 71, but the next closest was West Virginia at 63. They don't tend to give a lot of points, particularly in the first half. It's a hallmark of Nikki Caldwell that still remains with this team: high intensity on defense and a pride in holding the scoreboard in check.
In all their losses, UCLA started well and saw a significant dropoff in performance in the second half. That 31% shooting against LSU was anchored by a 25% mark in the second half, for example. Whether it's a lack of toughness, talent, height, or composure, second halves have been the bane of the Bruins this year.
Prediction: 75 - 60 Tennessee
BassWatch™: 4 minutes in the first half.