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UCLA still a challenger, not a champion ...yet

3/12/2011

LOS ANGELES -- There will come a day when the first question UCLA women's basketball coach Nikki Caldwell is asked after a game against Stanford doesn't have to deal with the gap that still exists between the two programs.

It has become clear to everyone on the West Coast that Caldwell has the Bruins on the rise. She recruits well, coaches ferociously and has a championship pedigree from learning at Pat Summitt's hip at Tennessee.

For about 34 minutes on Saturday, it looked as if that day might have finally come. UCLA led Stanford 30-21 at the half and withstood Stanford's 19-8 run over the first 10 minutes of the second half and built the lead back up to 46-40 with 9:17 to play.

But the Cardinal wasn't finished yet.

If anything, Stanford was just getting warmed up.

Stanford pulled even 46-46 on Nnemkadi Ogwumike's layup with 6:14 to go, took the lead on her free throw, and never looked back over the final six dizzying minutes to close out an impressive 64-55 win over the Bruins.

Afterward, Caldwell and her team sat quietly on their bench as Stanford celebrated its eighth Pac-10 tournament title in 10 years and cut down the nets at the Staples Center.

It was a classy gesture.

But there was lesson in it too.

"The one thing that I want for them is just nothing but greatness," Caldwell said after the game.

She was emotional, but poised.

This could've been the day UCLA finally broke through the Cardinal ceiling all West Coast programs must crack on their way to the top. So she wanted them to watch as Stanford celebrated its impressive comeback victory.

She wanted them to see how good a win like that would feel.

"You knew that they weren't just going to give in," Caldwell said of Tara VanDerveer's team. "You know the fight that they have. ... They're not considered one of the the best programs in the history of the game for nothing."

Caldwell has always been able to picture UCLA at that level one day. She wouldn't have left Tennessee and taken the job three years ago if she couldn't envision a championship future at UCLA.

UCLA has come a long way in her three years. The Bruins (27-4) are ranked ninth in the country, with three of their four losses coming to Stanford.

But for the famously intense Caldwell, that's not nearly enough.

"When coach Nikki came here, she came with a drive and intensity that we weren't going to take anything less," senior guard Doreena Campbell said. "She came in and instilled discipline into us and hard work and the belief that we can to anything, as long as we put the effort in.

"We're climbing the ladder, but we still haven’t peaked yet. We still haven't hit that point where we can completely put it out for that whole entire time.”

That day is coming.

It might come next week in the NCAA yournament.

But it hasn’t arrived just yet.