UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close may not have had her players seated around her during the reveal of the NCAA Tournament bracket due to classes, but that certainly did not take away from her team’s No. 4 seed in the Bridgeport Regional.
The Bruins (23-8, 13-5 Pac-12) will host the No. 13 Boise State Broncos (25-7, 12-6 Mountain West) Saturday in the first round of tournament play.
The team’s top-16 seed will allow them to host the first two rounds at Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins have won 27 straight dating back to 2015, the second longest-active streak in the country behind the tournament’s top overall seed, University of Connecticut.
“Here, it’s really about controlling what you can control,” Close said. “I like our chemistry, our versatility, the way we’re defending and rebounding. I really like where our team is mentally, emotionally and physically.”
UCLA is coming off a semifinal exit from the Pac-12 tournament after second-half woes resulted in a 63-53 loss to Oregon State. The Bruins shot a season-low 30.7 percent from the field, relying heavily on their defense to keep the game close until the closing minutes.
“One of our core anchors has really been defensive stops,” Close said. “We played really good defense and controlled the defensive boards. We just missed so many shots. But what we learned from that is we got to keep doing what we’re doing on the defensive end. We’ve got to keep bringing that urgency.”
Led by junior guard Jordin Canada and junior forward Monique Billings, UCLA finished fourth in conference-play and is among six other teams from the top-ranked Pac-12, per RPI, earning tickets to the Big Dance.
“It’s just unbelievable how competitive the conference is,” Close said. “But it gives us all the confidence going into the tournament because we’ve seen every style. We’ve been in so many close games. It’s just such a great preparation to play in the No. 1 conference in the country.”
Boise State secured its ticket to the tournament by grabbing onto one of the 32 automatic bids after a 66-53 win against Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game.
The Broncos will be making their fourth tournament appearance in program history where they will be looking for their first win. Their last matchup ended in a 72-61 loss to Tennessee in 2015.
The Broncos, winners of 10 straight, tallied a program-high 25-win season. Senior guard Brooke Pahukoa led her team in scoring with 13.6 points-per-game, netting 15 of her team-high 17 points in the second half Friday to clinch a tournament berth and earn tournament MVP honors.
On paper, the two teams seem evenly matched in respect to shooting percentages, rebounding and assists. But after their most recent games, the Bruins will look to make strides in their half-court sets in addition to continuing their defensive intensity.
“I’m really impressed with the growth of our post defense and ability to get defensive rebound. And that’s the right anchor to have going into March,” Close said. “Now we can focus on the little things like half-court execution.”
Last season, Close guided UCLA to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1999. But this season, she is confident in her team’s ability to advance even further.
“It’s like trying to put together a puzzle,” Close said. “You look at each matchup individually and see how you put our pieces together to play to our strengths while also taking away the other team’s strengths.”