On the shoulders of a roller coaster 72-67 victory over No. 6 seed South Florida (24-10) on Monday, No. 3 seed UCLA (26-8) punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament – the school’s first since 1999.
The Bruins will continue their run in the Bridgeport Regional semifinal against No. 2 seed Texas (30-4) for a chance to reach their first Elite Eight since the same year.
The Longhorns, who had very little difficulty in dispatching Missouri in the second round, are a tough matchup for any team in the country, as they finished second in the Big 12.
“It’s going to be a really physical game,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “I think Texas is as good a running team as we’ve faced. They’re as athletic and as deep as we are and they play extremely hard.”
The Longhorns are in many ways an even matchup for the Bruins. While they may not have the likes of sophomore guard Jordin Canada and senior guard Nirra Fields on the ball for them, their backcourt – led by Brooke McCarty – is nothing to scoff at. As a whole, Texas is quick, elusive and prepared to fight for tough baskets.
Close issued a challenge to her players.
“The message is, ‘You better be ready to battle,’” Close said. “The message is, ‘You better be ready to sprint back in transition defense.’ If you want to be ready to outrebound this team, you have be willing to step up to the challenge. We’re going to have to play really, really, really hard, which is great.”
The game will be different in many ways than UCLA’s past games, especially in magnitude. There’s a lot at stake, including an Elite Eight showdown against – barring a miraculous showing from Mississippi State – longstanding kingpin UConn.
At the same time, however, the players and coaches are sticking to the same points that have got them this far in the tournament.
“Our mindset is the same as it’s been all season,” said sophomore forward Monique Billings. “We have to work on the things we can control and have a narrow focus – tunnel vision.”
UCLA is very much aware of its identity. The team thrives offensively when it can attack with speed in transition, and it struggles when it is unable to do so. That means the Bruins rely heavily upon their defense.
“Texas has big post players and physical guards,” Canada said. “Obviously, defending against that and getting rebounds are the biggest keys.”
But again, UCLA’s opponent is a different breed than anything it has recently faced. Like the Bruins, the Longhorns are built around their speed and have taken advantage of that asset all year. The Bruins have to be able to break them down defensively or suffer a similar fate to the many teams that they have run over en route to the upcoming game.
“Texas is a great defensive team. They’re a really physical team and we need to get on the boards for us to be successful,” Fields said. “Also we need to take pride in our transition defense. They are a pushing, running team just as we are. We have to stop that.”
Another wrinkle in the matchup is Texas center Imani Boyette, a strong 6-foot-7 post presence who is second in scoring on the team. She is a product of Los Angeles and was a high school teammate of Canada.
“It’s been a while,” Canada said. “She’s a very good player, so I’m excited to play against her again.”
The meeting in Bridgeport, Connecticut Saturday morning promises to be an intense back-and-forth affair between two teams who are determined to keep their highly successful seasons alive.
“We’re definitely excited to be in this position,” Canada said. “We’ve been confident all season and we’re looking forward to it.”