Saturday, October 21

UCLA women’s basketball to face North Carolina State in first-round matchup

For the first time in four years, UCLA will play in the NCAA tournament in Kansas City regional

Jasmine Dixon leads UCLA,  heading into the NCAA Tournament Sunday.

Jasmine Dixon leads UCLA, heading into the NCAA Tournament Sunday. Tiffany Cheng

There will be a team in Westwood dancing after all. It just might not be the one that most people expected.

The UCLA women’s basketball team heard its name called on selection Monday and will be heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. The Bruins enter the 64-team field as a No. 8 seed in the Kansas City regional and will face No. 9 seed North Carolina State in a first-round matchup in Minneapolis.

For coach Nikki Caldwell, no stranger to the tournament as a player and assistant under legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the team’s selection is a cause for celebration and recognition of the hard work her players have put in.

“I’m excited for the team and that they get to experience March Madness,” Caldwell said Monday afternoon. “We’re one of the teams that gets to play another day. What’s more exciting than that?”

With a disappointing and surprising No. 8 seeding, UCLA will have to face some of the toughest early-round competition of any team. If the Bruins get past the Wolfpack on Sunday, they would likely face a date with No. 1 seed Nebraska (30-1). The Cornhuskers’ lone loss came at the hands of Texas A&M in the Big XII tournament over the weekend.

For now, though, the focus is on finding ways to overcome an unfamiliar opponent.

“Honestly, I thought that with what we’ve been able to do down the stretch, it surprised me that we were seeded as an eight seed,” Caldwell said. “I thought we’d fall around the five or six seed.”

Despite the difficult draw ahead, UCLA players and coaches spoke with a sense of optimism following the announcement of their selection. For senior guard Erica Tukiainen, a berth in the tournament after four years of waiting was a reward in itself.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Tukiainen said. “We’re going to be playing against a good team, but at the same time, we’re going to be prepared. It’s time to go to work and watch film.”

For UCLA to have a chance of advancing deep into the tournament, it will need its best players to step up at the right time just as it did for much of the regular season.

Sophomore Jasmine Dixon appears to be a prime candidate for doing just that after being named to both the all-Pac-10 team for both the regular season and conference tournament.

“I didn’t know where we’d be coming in, but any place in the tournament is okay with me,” Dixon said. “Everybody has to play every game like it’s their last. You lose one game and you’re done, so we have to focus and play each team like it’s the number one team in the country.”

As for their first-round opponents, there is still a lot to learn.

North Carolina State (20-13) finished fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and won three games in three days before falling to Duke in the conference tournament final. Like UCLA, North Carolina State enters the tournament playing some of its best basketball of the season, having won seven out of its final nine games.

They are led by senior guard Nikitta Gartrell and sophomore forward Bonae Holston, who leads the team in scoring with 12.2 points per game.

“I had the opportunity to watch them,” Caldwell said. “I know (coach) Kellie Harper very well. North Carolina State is very well coached. They’re led by Gartrell, who is a fine talent. I remember watching her on the recruiting trail.”

North Carolina State and UCLA had just one common opponent this season: USC. The Wolfpack defeated USC in Los Angeles back in December 2009. UCLA took two out of three games from the Trojans.

“I was surprised that ‘SC wasn’t seeded,” Caldwell said. “They have a very competitive team that went out early and beat some ranked opponents.”

Players and coaches alike are determined to make sure that this experience is a memorable one, especially after so long of a wait.

“We’re excited, because we haven’t gotten to the tournament as long as I’ve been here,” Tukiainen said. “We want to do everything we can to get ready, and obviously we’re going to enjoy the experience.”

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