UCLA seniors Canada, Billings take aim at final NCAA tournament

LOS ANGELES -- The GBL Lady Rebels and the Corona Diamonds faced each other many weekends in local AAU tournaments across Southern California. This was way, way back -- sometime around third grade.
Jordin Canada, then on the Rebels, and Monique Billings, then on the Diamonds, knew of each other.
Little Canada would storm down court, dropping in layup after layup, with few able to catch up. "It was basically how it is now," Billings said with a laugh.
And there was young Billings. She'd stretch her arms out and call for the ball on the block. "She was super tall," Canada said.
Neither knew that they'd wind up college teammates at UCLA. Now they are in their final season wearing blue and gold together, with one last shot in the NCAA tournament. The seniors lead the ninth-ranked Bruins (24-7) into the Big Dance after falling to UConn 86-71 in last season's Sweet 16.

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The road ahead won't be easy. UCLA received a No. 3 seed in the Kansas City Regional, and will host the first and second rounds. The Bruins face 14th-seeded American, the Patriot League champ, on Saturday. If they win, a potential showdown with sixth-seeded Iowa and Megan Gustafson, the nation's leading scorer, awaits in the second round on Monday.
UCLA lost to sixth-ranked Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals on March 3, marking its third loss against the Ducks this season. Canada had 19 points, and Billings had 18.
Late in the first quarter, Billings outstretched her arms in the passing lane and stole the ball. Canada instinctively ran down court. Billings gave the ball up to her point guard for the easy deuce. Billings clapped while both ran back on defense.
"I think they realize how much they need each other," UCLA coach Cori Close said.
The two are often in tandem. Canada pushes the ball up the court quickly. Billings blazes to go get it. Billings sets screens for Canada, who whips the ball back or creates for other teammates or herself. Canada hits jumpers and gets to the basket while Billings grabs rebounds and uses her versatility to score inside.
"We're like peanut butter and jelly," Billings said.
Canada, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a third-team espnW All-American, is averaging 16.8 points, 6.9 assists, 3.5 boards and 3.2 steals per game. Billings is averaging 15.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per night.
Close said the chemistry between the pair didn't happen immediately. They don't spend every waking moment together, but they've learned to appreciate what each brings to the floor.
"They've had a gradual commitment to grow together," Close said. "They understood that they came here on a mission to have a great time and have great chemistry, but to seek excellence, to equip themselves for life after basketball and to set themselves up for a long pro career as well."
It took time for them to get used to each other: where each likes the ball on the court and what each likes off the court, too.
Canada is more reserved. She has worked to come out of her shell since freshman year, but she's still a homebody.
"If I'm in my house, I'm not going back out," Canada said.
She chills with her white-and-brown Maltipoo, Romeo, named after the rapper Lil' Romeo. She loves animals and children.