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NCAA WOMEN'S REGIONAL SEMIFINALS AND FINALS: KANSAS CITY


March 24, 2018


Cori Close

Jordin Canada

Monique Billings

Kelli Hayes

Kennedy Burke

Lajahna Drummer


Kansas City, Missouri

THE MODERATOR: Okay we're now joined by the Bruins from UCLA. Coach Cori Close, her student-athletes, and starters, Jordin Canada, Lajahna Drummer, Kennedy Burke, Kelli Hayes and Monique Billings.

CORI CLOSE: Thank you all for covering our sport. It's huge for us to continue to grow our sport and we need you all to do that, so thank you for what you do. I'm excited to be able to coach this team for another day. We have been very consistent that we want to earn another one, earn another day to be together, earn another chance to compete. So we feel privileged and very hungry to continue to have the opportunity to earn another day.

THE MODERATOR: Questions for our student-athletes.

Q. Jordin and Monique, the men's basketball program has a tremendous history, they've been for the Final Four 18 times. What would it mean for you guys to break through and get to a Final Four yourselves?
JORDIN CANADA: It would be great, obviously, UCLA has a lot of history. Wanting to be a part of that would be a tremendous honor and blessing, but we have to focus on getting there. We just gotta make sure we follow the game plan and hopefully it will happen.

MONIQUE BILLINGS: Yeah, it would be a dream come true. That's something that you think about when you -- when you are a little girl watching basketball, or when you commit to a school that's something that always comes to mind. So it would definitely be a dream come true, but I agree with Jordin it's the steps that we have to take to get there, first.

Q. Monique, I think you've had a look at Mississippi State already but when you think about trying to defend them on the post, where does that process start and what's going to be the plan to try to hold your own tomorrow?
MONIQUE BILLINGS: We talked about in film today playing early, playing low and just being able to use my advantages as a post, which is, like, speed, quickness, and, yeah, just playing at a high tempo.

Q. Lajahna, picking up on that, I'm assuming to defend McCowan it's being to be an all hands on deck situation for you guys. Is there anybody you have played that's comparable in the Pac-12 to what you see from her on film? Do you expect her to be the biggest challenge you guys have faced in the paint this year?
LAJAHNA DRUMMER: In the Pac-12 we have a lot of people who are her size. We have definitely had a good amount of practice. I would say G├╝lich is probably her size so we're set. We have had a lot of practice.

Q. Jordin, how do you plan on match you go up with Morgan William? That's going to be a fun match-up for a lot of people and Monique, three of you have been here three times before, how is this year different from previous years?
JORDIN CANADA: Morgan William is a great point guard. She leads her team very well. Just trying to use my advantages and my strengths over hers. I know it's going to be a tough match-up, so just trying to focus on that match-up and trying to focus on that.

MONIQUE BILLINGS: This year has been different for us because we made it over that Sweet 16 hump that we were stuck at for the last two years, so now we need to make it over this Elite Eight hump and just keep it going.

Q. Kelli, how did your senior experience help in the Sweet 16 yesterday, help you gather your team?
KELLI HAYES: Well, my senior experience has been culminated for the past three years, not just this year alone so using my experiences as a freshman, sophomore, junior and now a senior, building that momentum into this year. It's been a growing process into being the person that I am today and being a leader that I am with this team and it's not done yet. It's something that I've been growing and with the help of my teammates I wouldn't be where I am today and our program wouldn't be what it is now without my maturity and growth. So it's been cool to see that growth develop in myself as well as how I've been able to impact the team in other aspects.

Q. Ladies, question for Jordin and then if Kennedy could give her two cents. Leading scorer, leading assister. We in the media love labels. I'll let you give us the label that we can use for you. Scorer, assister, and then for Kennedy, how does the team view Jordin as the engine that drives it? As one of the engines? What role do you guys see her playing?
JORDIN CANADA: Well for me, I don't want to just be labeled as a scorer or an assister. I see myself as an all-around player. It's not just about the offensive end it's how I play on the defensive end as well. I would say I'm a basketball player. Honestly, I love playing on both ends of the floor and that's what I'm all about and that's how I play. It's not just about offense. It's about defense as well so I'm an all-around player.

KENNEDY BURKE: I would agree with her. She is not only a scorer but she gets it done on the defensive end. She is a great teammate, a great leader for us and not only can she do it on the defensive end, she can drive to the basket and no matter how big you are she will take it to you.

Q. How about Monique and Kelli, everybody up there is a Californian even Coach Cori Close and there were years when California players didn't necessarily stay on the west coast. Monique and Kelli, if you could talk about your decision and the idea of, I'm sure you guys could have both left the state and decided to stay there and build a program that hadn't been to the Sweet 16 in a long time.
MONIQUE BILLINGS: There were a plethora of decisions of why I chose to come to UCLA as well as my teammates but that is definitely one of the reasons to be from California and the first to do something special at a program that wasn't necessarily on the map and that's what we set out to do, that was our mindset from day one. We knew it wasn't going to be easy but we wanted to change the minds of people who maybe thought west coast basketball was soft or whatever because that's not the case.

For me, I say actions speak louder than words and I think that's something we have exemplified throughout this year and throughout our fours years of being here at UCLA.

KELLI HAYES: Yeah, I would second what Mo had to say. During the recruiting process of course you flirt with other schools and other states but for me I really wanted to stay in California, Stanford, Cal, USC or UCLA, and out of those four schools every school has a legacy. But to me UCLA stuck out and I wanted to be part of a legacy and create and that's something we have already done even though our season isn't done and if I wasn't a stupidity would I want to be at UCLA, the answer is yes, it's far away for home but close enough for my parents to come to every game and that's why my teammates and I stayed because we wanted or families to be able to support us here at UCLA.

Q. Kennedy then Lajahna, obviously the first Elite Eight since 1999 on the precipice potentially of something that's never been done in program history. How do you compartmentalize that and not be overwhelmed by the moment and stay locked in on the task at hand because Mississippi State is an experienced team and it's not going to be an easy out?
KENNEDY BURKE: Honestly, it starts with today's practice. Just how we were focused on film today and we have film later on tonight and we have to just really focus on their personnel and then just know what we need to do to win this game.

LAJAHNA DRUMMER: For me personally I would just say Coach talks a lot about being present. So I would say that's probably the most important thing for myself and my team. So as long as we continue to be present and focus on what's in front of us, I think we will be in good position.

Q. Kelli, I know Coach has a very good relationship with Coach Wooden and she has talked about him a lot. Are there any specific pieces of advice that she has given you that remind you of Coach Wooden that she has taken from him and given to you guys?
KELLI HAYES: One, she preaches a lot to us is character, your character and who you are on the court as well as off and how that's been constantly reiterated for us, the things we do as lifestyle givers as people that care about one another. That is replicated onto the court with us and how we treat one another is how we treat our opponents, not in a sense of we're going to be nice to our opponent but in a sense where we're going to treat them with respect and challenge them through grace.

So it's something she has talked with us about, our character, and how we develop our game in practice, before practice, after practice, that's part of our character and who we develop as people and as basketball players.

Q. For Lajahna and Kelli, how have you changed as a team and personally over the last month?
LAJAHNA DRUMMER: So as a team I would say, usually when we have adversity in front of us, we kinda, like, sink down to it. But I think over time we've accepted it and then we've accepted the challenge and come to move on. So I feel like we're not just going to feel sorry for ourselves anymore. We've come to accept the challenge and tried to move past it.

KENNEDY BURKE: Going off of what Laj said about adversity, we joke about it all the time in practice. Coach will throw a drill at us and say well you guys are going to be down 3 in this drill and we're like, what? Okay, bring on the challenge. So we joke about adversity but yet you can see us overcoming those in game settings. As outsiders, you guys don't know what goes on in our practices but we know what we've done and what we've conquered and all that adversity that we've been put through is no longer adversity to us. It's being able to conquer and strive and embrace those challenges so it's no longer an issue or obstacle to us that we were coming across that we have done and executed and it's something that our team has grown at and something not everyone has been able to see every day. But we know we've done it every day so it's been cool on to see that with our team.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, ladies. Questions for Coach?

Q. Coach, congratulations on a great season. Kennedy spoke about leadership qualities with Jordin. What would you have to say about that?
CORI CLOSE: We say a lot. She is the captain of the ship. We go as she goes, in so many ways. One of the things I was proud of her last night in her leadership was her poise when things weren't easy for her. Her panic button so to speak when she was less mature was to take it all on herself and she was poised in running the team. She does affect, I challenge her in every film session and we will go through the possessions and say were you or were you not affecting every play and I believe she is capable of doing that, the screens she makes, the passes, the shots, on offense, on defense, away from the ball, her communication to move the pieces around. I think that's what an elite point guard sees themselves as is doesn't matter how it shows up statistically. They know how they've influenced every play and that's what being the captain of the ship for us in Jordin Canada is her ability to affect every play whether it shows up in assists or scores or not.

Q. Cori, can you reflect on what it's like to build a program in literally the entertainment capital of the world where there are so many things going on and to try to build a fan base and engagement with fans? It's very different in Starkville, obviously it's completely the opposite. Doing that and what I asked them about that California connection. You've recruited successfully in the state.
CORI CLOSE: Yeah, I think that the first part about building a culture and building in that city, I think it has to be bigger than entertainment and I think that's how we've tried to do it. We're trying to build a sincere and genuine engagement with our fans and I think that's why we've been so consistently about 20% improvement every year in attendance. This year for the first time in program history entered into the top 25 in the country in attendance.

It's been very steady. I think the people that come to our games don't just come for the entertainment of one particular game. They are truly engaged in the journey of these young women. Not only is it supporting our young women but our young women in a consistent basis being involved in our community, being seen as representatives on a larger scale of as student-athletes. Kelli referenced it as lifestyle givers. I think you engage people at a deeper level when you are viewed as that. We don't run from wanting to be role models, every player on the team chooses a word every year that they want to exemplify, and Monique Billings is legacy. It's not about her in the record books. It's about inspiring another young girl to want to do what she did just like someone inspired her. I think we have been very intentional about that and our players have bought into the opportunity that they have not only to build a culture and a program but to inspire and grow the game in Southern California.

In terms of California recruiting, we're fortunate that in those years we were building a program we had great talent in the state of California. I think their families deserve a lot of credit. A lot of kids not don't want to stay home and share the experience with their families and they come from really special families and I'm really grateful for that. I also think I've got to give credit to the Pac-12 networks. We have more TV exposure on linear television than any other conference in the country for women's basketball and I think that's been a major piece, the exposure we can promise recruits.

I think it's been special. I think that we have a place with so much broad tradition for athletics at UCLA but nothing had been done for women's basketball and I kept saying I'm looking for a courageous uncommon woman that wants to come and create something for the first time, that wants to do something that hasn't been done and not take the baton from somebody else but to build a foundation for years to come and that's exactly what they've done.

Q. As you guys try to go to your first Final Four and have that breakthrough you have to go through a team that had its own breakthrough last season. Is there anything you can take from last year to help you guys out?
CORI CLOSE: First of all, I have so much respect for Vic Schaefer not only in how he's built the program from a competency on the court but in the way he invests in the lives of his student-athletes. I think they play for each other and for him in a really cool way. I think you can see their hunger last year. I could see it. I became a fan watching their hunger to have that break through and their hunger to represent their school and the person on their right and left and the feeling of responsibility in that and I talked about that in film today. You have to have that deep hunger and belief that you want to keep playing with each other and for each other. I think that also it just starts, it's hard to believe for the first time.

I think what they did in building that in their program last year was remarkable. I think that's something we've been seeking to do is to believe internally, really deeply before anyone on the outside could even suspect.

Q. Coach, last night you got a little choked up talking about Nan Wooden calling and telling you that she thought her dad would have liked watching this team play. What is it about this team that she was referring to? Why do you think she believes that, that Coach Wooden would feel that way and go on what it feels like to have her say that?
CORI CLOSE: I think it's humbling and I think it takes a village to build a program. It takes a village to raise a head coach. I feel like I've been raised up by significant people, the people I played for, the people I coached with. I was an assistant for 18 years and Coach Wooden is one of many people that selflessly invested in my life and in my career. I think when you have someone like Coach Wooden you respect so much that his daughter would say that "Daddy would like this team and Daddy would be proud." I know what she's referring to, she's referring to team basketball, that we're willing to make the extra pass. It's all about the team play more than it is about the individual play.

It's about defense. I know that he really valued. He loved to press. He really brought that to bear at a high level at UCLA. That's what she referred to is the selflessness, how hard they play and how we defend and share the ball.

So I think, you know, that's what he did. He built teams that obviously became more and more talented as the years went on and they won so many championships, but it was always about the unit more than about the individual. Doing something linked together that you could never do by yourself. If we can represent UCLA, that's what wearing those letters across our chest mean is that we represent something bigger than ourselves. In order to continue to walk in that legacy you have to be concerned about how you link together more than what you're doing on your own path.

Q. A lot of times coaches say that when they're in a tournament situation there is not that much time to prepare for the next opponent, they're just going to sort of hope what their strengths are help them get over that next game and that short window and then you have other coaches say we're going to spend every single hour looking over the game plan. I was curious what your take is, what your decision making was there?
CORI CLOSE: Well, our conference prepares this way every week so this is very familiar to us. I do think that's a tremendous advantage, that a quick, one-day prep is nothing that unusual. It's not just the players' mindset but our staff knows how to prepare that way on a quick turn-around. Our video team had everything broken down by the time I got back to the hotel last night I had so many things and tools on my computer for me to work on. It's really a team effort but it's one that we do all the time.

In the format of the Pac-12, I do think, like I said, was a great advantage. But I do think that sometimes you have to know the personality of your own team. I do think sometimes you can overprepare with the team. What we do internally as a staff is not always what we share with the team. We're prepared on the bench for so many different things, but this particular team I made a real big mistake the very first game of the Pac-12 at Stanford and I overcoached them, flat out. I gave them too much information and instead of playing to our identity which is focused freedom and being long and athletic and free and versatile, we were thinking too much. I think every team a coach has to know their own team and how to put them in positions to be successful and sometimes we as coaches and I as a coach make mistakes in that. But at this point in the year I think we know who we are and when we play at our best. We're just trying to do the same thing we have been doing throughout the Pac-12 season, trying to prepare at a high level with the different styles of every single game and the game plan that needs to have adjustments and try to use that to play to our strengths.

Q. Coach, you mentioned breakthroughs and it took your team three tries to get to the Elite Eight. What lessons did they learn to make that step? How can you apply that to trying to break through to that Final Four tomorrow?
CORI CLOSE: Well, I think that, you know, there's a lot of lessons. I think learning from every experience that has come before. Kelli referenced that. That it's not just the last few weeks or the last, even this year. It's a cumulative maturing that has taken place and to try to use every experience. One of our core values is choosing to see everything with a growth mindset. We can turn whatever circumstances come our way as an opportunity to learn and grow. When you choose that and sometimes it's a hard choice you have this cumulative affect of experience that truly does build into something different and better.

I think we are in that position. I think, you know, every part of previous years have created different lessons. I think having faced Texas in the Sweet 16 before and then in the scrimmage there was familiarity to that. Knowing how to take things away. But, you know, also, I think it's just about, last year we were playing at a very high level at the end of the year. We had a bad seed because we had two bad losses and that affected that we had to meet UConn in the Sweet 16. We talked about that throughout this year. It was so important that we put ourselves in a position to get the kind of match-ups that we wanted to make those next steps, because we felt like we were playing at a higher level. But we ran into that crazy buzz saw UConn. So the reality is choosing to use every experience and not brushing them to the side, but truly embracing those and trying to use them as opportunities to learn and grow.

THE MODERATOR: Okay, Coach. Thank you very much for your comments. We'll see you tomorrow.

CORI CLOSE: Thank you all.

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