UCLA seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings take aim at final NCAA tournament

Senior guard Jordin Canada leads UCLA in scoring (16.8 PPG) and assists (6.9 APG). Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- The GBL Lady Rebels and the Corona Diamonds faced each other many weekends in local AAU tournaments across Southern California. This was way, way back -- sometime around third grade.

Jordin Canada, then on the Rebels, and Monique Billings, then on the Diamonds, knew of each other.

Little Canada would storm down court, dropping in layup after layup, with few able to catch up. "It was basically how it is now," Billings said with a laugh.

And there was young Billings. She'd stretch her arms out and call for the ball on the block. "She was super tall," Canada said.

Neither knew that they'd wind up college teammates at UCLA. Now they are in their final season wearing blue and gold together, with one last shot in the NCAA tournament. The seniors lead the ninth-ranked Bruins (24-7) into the Big Dance after falling to UConn 86-71 in last season's Sweet 16.

The road ahead won't be easy. UCLA received a No. 3 seed in the Kansas City Regional, and will host the first and second rounds. The Bruins face 14th-seeded American, the Patriot League champ, on Saturday. If they win, a potential showdown with sixth-seeded Iowa and Megan Gustafson, the nation's leading scorer, awaits in the second round on Monday.

UCLA lost to sixth-ranked Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals on March 3, marking its third loss against the Ducks this season. Canada had 19 points, and Billings had 18.

Late in the first quarter, Billings outstretched her arms in the passing lane and stole the ball. Canada instinctively ran down court. Billings gave the ball up to her point guard for the easy deuce. Billings clapped while both ran back on defense.

"I think they realize how much they need each other," UCLA coach Cori Close said.

The two are often in tandem. Canada pushes the ball up the court quickly. Billings blazes to go get it. Billings sets screens for Canada, who whips the ball back or creates for other teammates or herself. Canada hits jumpers and gets to the basket while Billings grabs rebounds and uses her versatility to score inside.

"We're like peanut butter and jelly," Billings said.

Canada, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a third-team espnW All-American, is averaging 16.8 points, 6.9 assists, 3.5 boards and 3.2 steals per game. Billings is averaging 15.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per night.

Close said the chemistry between the pair didn't happen immediately. They don't spend every waking moment together, but they've learned to appreciate what each brings to the floor.

"They've had a gradual commitment to grow together," Close said. "They understood that they came here on a mission to have a great time and have great chemistry, but to seek excellence, to equip themselves for life after basketball and to set themselves up for a long pro career as well."

It took time for them to get used to each other: where each likes the ball on the court and what each likes off the court, too.

Canada is more reserved. She has worked to come out of her shell since freshman year, but she's still a homebody.

"If I'm in my house, I'm not going back out," Canada said.

She chills with her white-and-brown Maltipoo, Romeo, named after the rapper Lil' Romeo. She loves animals and children.

Billings is more outgoing, a go-with-the-flow free spirit. She doesn't like to listen to mainstream music, going for artists such as Moonchild, Russ and No Name instead.

"I'm into the vibes," Billings said.

During halftime of every game, she eats leftovers she saved from the pre-game meal.

"Hey, it works. If you get 18 boards a game ..." Billings says, referring to her dominant night on the glass against then-No. 21 Cal in January.

Canada laughs. She knows Billings has to have her halftime meal: "She's been doing it since freshman year."

That first season presented a steep learning curve for both players. Canada had to learn to speak up and not just lead by example. Billings came in with something to prove. She wasn't a McDonald's All American. She labored on her moves and footwork in the paint, coming off the bench at first as a freshman. Canada started right away.

As they tackled their own weaknesses, they started to understand each other on the court. Billings cracked the starting lineup and became a force inside. The pair led UCLA to its first WNIT championship in 2015 and back-to-back NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances in 2016 and 2017.

"We're like peanut butter and jelly." UCLA's Monique Billings, on how she and teammate Jordin Canada complement each other

They began really clicking while playing for USA Basketball last summer. They helped Team USA win the U24 Four Nations Tournament in Japan in August. Canada had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 17 minutes, and Billings had 8 points and 4 rebounds in 13 minutes in the U.S. women's 103-71 gold-medal victory over Japan.

Bringing that edge back to Westwood, the two have been as in sync as ever. Both dropped double-doubles in a hard-fought, 101-94 overtime road loss to Oregon in late February. Canada had 26 points and 13 assists, and Billings had 26 points and 10 rebounds.

Canada is as complete a player as she has been in her career. She's scoring points, dropping dimes and being a terror on defense. She has posted five steals or more on five occasions, including seven takeaways against Stanford.

Billings is hustling, too, ripping down 12 or more rebounds on six occasions.

"They've been consistent all year," Close said. "Night in and night out, they can be counted on."

The Bruins were disappointed after failing to win a regular-season championship, finishing fourth in Pac-12 play. But one team motto has been driving the squad to get over that hump heading toward the NCAA tournament: "For the 'fetti," short for "confetti," an emblem of winning the national championship.

"It's our last year playing together. It's our last hurrah," senior guard Kelli Hayes said. "This is it. We have to do it ... I know [for the 'fetti] is cliché and superficial, but at the end of the day, you want to win. You want to see that confetti falling from the sky."