On this night, Caldwell delivered more hugs than handshakes.
Her eighth game on the LSU sideline pitted her against the UCLA outfit she coached the past three seasons, a reunion that also included the three LSU assistants who followed Caldwell from Westwood to Baton Rouge. Caldwell led the Bruins back to national prominence while compiling a 72-26 record in her first stop as a head coach, but the former Tennessee standout left UCLA in April and returned to her Southeastern Conference roots.
“When you set out to be a head coach and you don’t have any inclination of what the future may hold, you build relationships with these young kids,” Caldwell said. “We just want what any coach does. You want nothing but the best not only for your current players but your former players as well.”
Caldwell and her assistants put their emotional ties to the Bruins on hold for 40 minutes and watched their LSU team put together maybe its most inspired effort of the young season.
Despite committing a season-high 29 turnovers, LSU ended UCLA’s three-game winning streak by controlling the Bruins from the opening tip.
LaSondra Barrett spurred the Lady Tigers, scoring 18 points — the most by a Lady Tiger this season – to go with a game-high eight rebounds and five assists.
LSU’s Adrienne Webb found her stroke from the outside, connecting on a trio of 3-pointers en route to scoring 13 points.
LSU, coming off a 67-35 rout of Alabama State, shot 49 percent from the field for the second game in a row.
Returning from injury, UCLA junior Markel Brown scored 11 points in her first game of the year.
But the Bruins were an offensive mess most of the night, shooting only 31.5 percent from the field while committing 24 turnovers of their own. They certainly could have used all-conference forward Jasmine Dixon, who in September underwent surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon and is likely out for the year.
“Their best player is out,” Caldwell said, “so I commend them for having other players step up and take on that leadership role for them. They’re a very young team.”
Caldwell would know.
After making her mark as an assistant under Pat Summitt at Tennessee, Caldwell got her first shot as a head coach at UCLA, where she helped the Bruins reach the NCAA tournament in each of her final two seasons.
First-year UCLA coach Cori Close, a former Florida State assistant, said she tried to tone down the emotions of her players entering Tuesday’s game.
“Our emotions were with 18- to 22-year-old women who really care about their coaches and really care about their games,” Close said. “I think you have to keep your emotions at a level that you can still concentrate on what you need to do to be successful possession by possession.”
Barrett said UCLA’s players weren’t the only ones who were fired up.
“In the back of our minds, we didn’t want to let (Caldwell) down,” Barrett said. “It was something that we wanted to do for her. We didn’t want her to have that taste in her mouth of losing to her old team.”
LSU never trailed, but the Bruins stayed within striking distance until the Lady Tigers went on a 7-0 run to end the first half.
The momentum shift came after Barrett was called for a flagrant foul with 1:38 remaining and Brown made one of two free throws to make it a 23-20 game.
Barrett fed guard Jeanne Kenney for a transition basket, then scored on an assist from Kenney for a 27-20 lead. Barrett’s 3-pointer as time expired completed the 7-0 spurt, making it 30-20 at the break.
“That was a great push for us, a run Barrett spearheaded,” Caldwell said. “The game definitely could have gone the other way in that minute-and-a half spurt.”
Rebekah Gardner knocked down a 3-pointer to make it a seven-point game early in the second half, but LSU scored 11 of the next 15 points to stay in control. The Lady Tigers built the lead to as much as 54-35 with 2:17 remaining.
When the final horn sounded, Caldwell took a trip down memory lane.
She wished her former players luck as she shook their hands and hugged their necks.
“UCLA is always gong to be dear to me.,” she said. “That administration there gave me my first coaching job, and there’s some great people at UCLA who have helped mold me into the coach I am today.”