No. 14 UCLA 53, St. John’s 52

UCLA coach Cori Close is hoping a gritty overtime victory over
St. John’s will help her team later in the season.

The 14th-ranked Bruins needed a last-second lay-in from Jasmine
Dixon to beat the Red Storm 53-52 on Sunday in the championship
game of the St. John’s Holiday Classic.

”This was a pivotal marker in the season and we’ll look back on
this game and go wow, we got a lot tougher,” Close said. ”We know
how to fight and find a way to win.”

Trailing by one, Markel Walker inbounded the ball to Dixon for
the wide-open basket. Shenneika Smith’s 60-foot fling was short at
the buzzer.

”I give credit to the coaching staff,” Close said about the
final play. ”That’s exactly what we wanted to run in the timeout.
We had run it a few times earlier in the game and gotten good looks
off it.”

Nadirah McKenith had given the Red Storm a 52-51 advantage with
a lay-in with 25 seconds left.

After a timeout, UCLA’s Alyssia Brewer caught the ball in the
block and forced a shot up with 2.5 seconds to go. It missed and
went out of bounds off the Red Storm, giving UCLA its final
chance.

Brewer led UCLA (7-1) with 14 points and 15 rebounds, earning
MVP honors for the tournament. Walker finished with eight points,
11 rebounds and eight assists.

Smith scored a season-high 25 points for St. John’s (5-4), while
McKenith had nine points, eight rebounds and six assists.

UCLA trailed 45-43 with 21 seconds left in regulation when
Brewer made a nifty pass from the post to Dixon for an easy lay-in
to tie the game. St. John’s had a chance to win in regulation but
Smith’s 3-pointer from the wing was off the rim.

The game looked as if it was headed for a blowout at the
start.

UCLA built a 22-6 advantage as the Red Storm missed 19 of their
first 21 shots. The Bruins were getting contributions from
everywhere. It could have been a bigger lead, but St. John’s was
able to play solid defense despite struggling on offense.

”It’s tough to lose a game like that,” St. John’s coach Joe
Tartamella said. ”I’m proud how we were able to come back. It was
a good game for growth, but there are no moral victories here.
These guys have been through a lot of battles in their
careers.”

Atonye Nyingifa’s lay-in with 5:39 left in the half was the
Bruins’ last points before the break. Sparked by Smith, St. John’s
closed the half on an 11-0 run.

She got the burst started with a 3-pointer and had seven points
during the surge. UCLA missed its last 10 shots of the half.

St. John’s continued its run in the second half. After UCLA took
a 26-19 advantage on Nirra Fields’ jumper with 18:24 left in the
game, the Red Storm scored 13 of the next 15 points. Aliyyah
Handford had seven points during the run. Smith’s lay-in with 12:58
remaining gave St. John’s its first lead of the game.

Fields finally ended UCLA’s 8-minute drought without a basket,
banking in a 3-pointer from the wing that brought the Bruins within
one.

Neither team could build much of a lead over the final 10
minutes of regulation.

”After the two runs it was a mentality and heart game,” Close
said. ”Neither team was playing fluid on offense. We were
struggling. We made our mistake.”

After a successful trip to New York, UCLA returns home to finish
off the month with three non-conference games before beginning
Pac-12 play in January. Besides playing the two games, the Bruins
made the most of their time in the city. They took in a Broadway
show, saw the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and visited
ground zero.

The Red Storm, sporting new black uniforms, are still trying to
get in a rhythm after losing senior guard Eugeneia McPherson to a
season-ending right knee injury two weeks ago. She was at the game
after undergoing surgery on Wednesday.

Saint Mary’s took third place in the tournament, beating
Tennessee Tech 73-58.

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