Pac-12 Feature: UCLA's Canada sets up teammates for success

Jordin Canada already knows what her lesson is from the 2016-17 season.

“Don’t underestimate anyone,” Canada said.

With two regular-season games to go against Arizona and Arizona State, a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament already locked up and the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, it’s a good time to remember that winning is anything but a given.

The Bruins head into the final weekend of Pac-12 play with a 20-7 record, 11-5 in the Pac-12.

UCLA has stumbled on the road in conference play, getting swept in Washington in January and then in Oregon earlier this month.

That is not a pattern that Canada wants to repeat in the season-closing road trip to the dessert. UCLA is coming off a big homestand that included an 11-point over Washington last Friday.

“When we execute the game plan, we play well,” Canada said. “I was proud of the way we bounced back after the losses in Oregon. We are going to need more of that this weekend in Arizona.”

Canada is leaving out some of the salient details. On Friday, against the Huskies, Canada came in off the bench after missing practice the entire week recovering from a whiplash sustained against Oregon State the previous weekend. Canada finished the game with 22 points.

And then came the food poisoning.

“She hasn’t been herself all week,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “She’s about 80-85 percent, but I think she will be 100 percent by the time the Pac-12 Tournament starts.”

The Bruins will need more of everything that Canada, the stellar junior guard, provides.

Canada, the Pac-12’s assists (6.74 apg) and steals (2.44) leader, also leads UCLA in minutes played (34.3 per game) and is second in scoring just behind Monique Billings (17.6 ppg).

“She has been better in every numerical category this year,” Close said. “But what you don’t see in the statistics is what she does on the defensive end. Her ability to guard all different kinds of people…She doesn’t let you get the ball into the post. She doesn’t let you bring the ball up. She’s really playing at a whole different level.”

Canada said her goals for the season were to improve her 3-point shooting, her pick-and-roll play and making her teammates better.

Close said she’s done that too, using her assists numbers as evidence. But there’s more to it than that, the coach said.

“If you were to ask them, they would tell you, ‘She’s setting us up better,’” Close said. “She is thinking about the game more globally.”

Canada was inspired by a conversation she had with U.S. Olympian and WNBA Champion Sue Bird, one of the greatest point guards in team history.

Bird’s advice, “Your job is to set up the team.”

“She’s always been such a competent scorer, but this was a new role for her,” Close said. “It’s something we’ve been talking to her about, but when you hear it from Sue Bird…”

UCLA was picked to win the conference in the preseason poll, and Canada admitted to a little disappointment that the Bruins aren’t in the title chase heading into the final weekend.

But she also knows there is a lot more basketball to be played and she wants her team to be playing at the highest level.

“We just want to be in a good position heading into the Pac-12 Tournament and then into the NCAA Tournament,” Canada said. “We need to stay locked into our game plan.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.

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