Jordin Canada leads UCLA back to the Big Dance

Jordin Canada is averaging 16.1 points and 6.0 assists for 3-seed UCLA, which opens the tournament Saturday. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

During a recent practice at UCLA, one of the Bruins players commented out loud about point guard Jordin Canada, "She's our all-conference player, let's just get it to her."

And Canada cringed.

"Her shoulders went in, and she looked uncomfortable," UCLA coach Cori Close said. "She didn't like it. But at the same time, when the lights brighten, she's at her best."

Canada came to UCLA a year and half ago from the not-so-far away place of Los Angeles. But the sophomore -- one of eight underclassmen on UCLA's roster -- has taken the Bruins a long way since her arrival.

Last year, UCLA started the season loaded with young talent -- the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- played the nation's toughest schedule, took lumps along the way -- and missed the NCAA tournament.

But the coming together of all that youth and ability showed itself in a run to the WNIT title that was a springboard for what came next.

Next, as it turns out, is a 24-8 season, a third-place finish in the competitive Pac-12, a run to the conference tournament title game and now a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. It's a remarkable one-year jump.

UCLA hosts 14th-seeded Hawaii on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. The winner will advance to face either sixth-seeded South Florida or No. 11 seed Colorado State.

"It's a great achievement for us, being in this position," Canada said. "I feel like the season we've had, prepared us for this tournament."

Canada and Close agreed that the Bruins' transformation from a young team to one of the country's elite teams started last spring.

"It was about building better chemistry, of getting to know each other better on and off the court, and it's helped us," Canada said. "I've seen more fight in this team, more grit and more heart and wanting to fight for one another."

UCLA again played one of the most difficult schedules in the country, falling to top-seeded South Carolina 68-65 at home on Nov. 22 and losing in overtime to No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the Bahamas over the Thanksgiving break.

"Losing those games, that was the start of where we were going to be," Canada said. "I feel like those games showed our potential of how good we can be."

The same can be said for Canada.

"I mean, what isn't her role on this team?" Close said. "She's not a rah-rah kid. She's not very loud. She really doesn't want to be in the spotlight. But the more pressure that's on, the better she plays. There is something inside of her that relishes those moments."

And Canada's teammates know it. The Bruins start three sophomores, and every play on the floor looks to Canada for leadership.

"They depend on her and they are always rooting for her," Close said.

Canada had one of the country's best all-around seasons. She was sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring (16.1 PPG) and led the conference in assists (6.0 APG), finishing second in steals (2.5 SPG) and assist/turnover ratio (2.0). She was named an All-Pac12 first-team performer and to the all-defensive team.

Last week, in the Pac-12 tournament, she was named to the all-tournament team, putting up 26 points, including eight in overtime, to lead UCLA to the title game with a semifinal victory over Cal. In the championship game against Oregon State, Canada finished with 17 points.

"She's the first person to affect our defense, and the first, by virtue of handling the ball, to affect our offense," Close said. "She's calm, she's under control and she's either taking the big shots or facilitating the big shots."

Teammate Kari Korver, for example, had shot 0-for-12 from the floor from beyond the 3-point arc in the Pac-12 tournament. The Bruins were trailing 10th-seeded Cal 61-58 with 28 seconds to go. A pair of missed free throws and a defensive rebound by Korver returned the ball to the Bruins, who called timeout with 14 seconds to go.

Close called a play that would put the ball in Korver's hands to tie the score with a 3-pointer.

"Coming out of the huddle, Jordin looked at her and said, 'You are making this shot and I'm going to get you open,'" Close said. "She just went to her and said, 'You are making this. I believe in you, you are making this,' and Kari believed her."

Korver drained a contested 3-pointer to tie the score with seven seconds to go, and Canada led the Bruins in overtime to the win.

"I think she's still growing into her confidence and coming into her role," Close said. "Her humility and selflessness is amazing."

Canada said she wants to pattern her game after the Clippers' Chris Paul or WNBA legend Sue Bird.

"It's these two for me in terms of leading my team and telling them where to go and being successful," Canada said. "But Russell Westbrook, it's his energy and emotion that I want to emulate."

Canada is eager to put the loss to Oregon State behind her.

"I hate losing and I don't want to feel like this," Canada said. "We are letting it go and moving on. At this point, I don't feel like we are an inexperienced team any more. We need to prepare and execute, and if we do those things we will be in a great position."