No. 22 UCLA 67, McNeese St. 59

Rhema Gardner scored a career-high 18 points and No. 22 UCLA

opened its season with a 67-59 win over McNeese State in the

Preseason WNIT on Friday night.

Atonye Nyingifa added 16 points and 12 rebounds, while Moriah

Faulk and Thea Lemberger scored 10 points apiece in Cori Close’s

UCLA head coaching debut.

Ashlyn Baggett scored 15 points and sister Caitlyn added 12 for

McNeese State, which shot 31 percent overall in its opener.

The Bruins outclassed the Cowgirls to start the second half,

turning a 13-point lead into a 53-28 advantage in a 6-minute span

before fending-off a late comeback bid.

UCLA will host the winner of New Mexico-Texas Tech in the WNIT’s

second round on Sunday.

Close, who started her coaching career on the Bruins’ staff in

the mid-90s, returned to UCLA in April after spending seven seasons

as a Florida State assistant. She replaced Nikki Caldwell, who left

to take over LSU after guiding the Bruins to consecutive NCAA

tournament appearances.

The Bruins won 28 games last year, one shy of a school record,

but face the season without the help of their leading scorer,

Jasmine Dixon. The All-America honorable mention will miss the year

with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Gardner and Nyingifa are already filling the void in the

frontcourt for the undersized Bruins. Gardner was four points shy

of her entire total from a season ago, while Nyingifa was two

points away from her career best of 18.

The game was played at the much more intimate John Wooden

Center, which will serve as the Bruins’ home while Pauley Pavilion

undergoes a major renovation.

McNeese State came into the contest fresh off its most

successful season in program history. The Cowgirls captured the

Southland Conference championship for the first time before losing

in first round of the NCAA tournament to eventual champion Texas


UCLA controlled the opening 20 minutes and then scored the first

eight points after halftime as part of a 14-2 run. Nyingifa had

seven points during the spurt, which resulted in a 53-28 lead with

14:18 remaining.

Kendra Wells eventually snapped the drought with a jumper as

part of an 8-0 run that got the Cowgirls’ within 53-36.

McNeese St. mustered one final push over the final minutes.

Candace LaCombe and Ashlyn Baggett hit 3-pointers to close to 66-59

with 11 seconds left.