KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tears fell. None came from UCLA’s three seniors.
Instead, as UCLA’s season-ending 89-73 loss to No. 1 Mississippi State in the Kansas City Regional Final on Sunday moved junior Japreece Dean and freshman Lauryn Miller to tears, it was the seniors playing in their last collegiate games who comforted the returners. Jordin Canada wrapped her one healthy arm around Dean’s shoulders. Hayes draped an arm around Miller.
The loss, ending an NCAA Tournament run that matched the best for UCLA, hurt the seniors, but if there’s one thing they’ve learned from leading the Bruins through one of the most successful four-year stretches in school history, it’s that the moment is bigger than themselves.
“The word ‘legacy’ is a powerful word,” said Hayes, who along with senior Monique Billings, appeared in her 141st career games Sunday, setting a UCLA record. “Most people think of it as banners and winning tournaments. Yeah, those are great. But legacy is the person that you’ve become. … It’s not always wins and losses. It’s how you impacted people on and off court and we’ve done that.”
Canada, Hayes and Billings finished with 97 career wins, two short of the UCLA record for a four-year span. They led the team to three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances for the first time in school history and to their first Elite Eight appearance since 1999.
The dominant Mississippi State duo of Teaira McCowan (23 points, 21 rebounds) and Victoria Vivians (24 points), who were named Kansas City Regional co-most outstanding players, kept the seniors from pushing UCLA (27-8) to its first Final Four.
Canada, despite playing most of the game with a sprained left elbow that will require further tests, led UCLA with 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals. She injured her non-shooting arm midway through the second quarter after getting it twisted between two opponents and falling hard after driving to the rim.
On the court, she held her arm close to her body, grimacing with every movement. On the bench between quarters, she needed assistance to tie her shoes.
“She’s got the heart of a lion,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.
With Canada limited, Dean, a junior transfer from Texas Tech, stepped up with 16 points and two assists in 30 minutes. It was her second 16-point performance in three games as she averaged 11.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was hard (seeing Canada injured) because she’s our leader, our main leader and our point guard, but we just have to have people step up,” said Dean, who has established a close relationship with Canada this year.
When Canada returned in the fourth quarter with 8:46 left, she sparked a UCLA run with a bounce pass assist to Billings. The Bruins scored nine consecutive points starting with two baskets from Billings, then a 3-pointer from Canada and a layup from Canada off a stolen in-bounds pass that cut the lead to six with 6:50 to go, the closest UCLA had been since the end of the first quarter.
Mississippi State (36-1) did not let the Bruins get closer. McCowan, whose imposing 6-foot-7 frame towered over everyone on the court, ended the run with a layup and Blair Schaefer hit a 3-pointer on the next Mississippi State possession to push the lead to nine with 5:48 to go.
Close called it “the biggest dagger.”
Schaefer scored nine points on perfect 3-of-3 shooting from long range.
“Mississippi State is a great team,” Close said. “They executed at critical times. … I couldn’t be prouder of the foundation, the culture, the way (the seniors) have represented themselves on the court as amazing basketball players but as students, as givers in our community. They have set the tone for what UCLA is all about.”