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.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg