Before routing the Bluejays Monday night, the Bruins watched all three 11-seeds upset the 3-seeds in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
“Christian (Blanks), our video coordinator, brought it to our attention,” said senior guard Jordin Canada“Seeing the upsets that day… that wasn’t going to be us.”
No. 3-seeded UCLA went on to steamroll No. 11-seeded Creighton en route to an 86-64 victory to advance to its third consecutive Sweet 16. The Bruins will face No. 2-seeded Texas in the regional semifinal game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on Friday night.
“When we played against Creighton, we came out strong and played consistent throughout the whole game,” Canada said. “I think that’s how we need to play the rest of the tournament.”
The Longhorns are averaging 42.9 rebounds a game this season, a number the Bruins have not achieved this entire postseason. Because Texas ranks second in the nation in rebounding margin at 11.4, coach Cori Close said UCLA will need rebounding help from its guards, in addition to post players, to be successful Friday.
“If we’re playing zone, our guards (need to be) able to rebound on the backside,” said Close. “For us to be able to mitigate that advantage and their strength of theirs, all of our guards are going to have to be involved in rebounding every single possession.”
Senior forward Monique Billings has been the consistent rebounder, averaging 9.7 boards throughout the season. But senior guard Kelli Hayes hopes to improve on being a contributor at that end as well through non-statistical categories called passion plays.
“One of (our) passion plays are assist box outs, and maybe I could box out a player and I may not get the ball, but I box out so well that (Canada) gets the ball,” Hayes said. “Those are ways we can build the rebounding margin.”
The Longhorns have also shot over 60 percent from the field in both Rounds 1 and 2. However, the Bruins pride themselves on defense and have called it their identity all season long. In Rounds 1 and 2 combined, UCLA collected 21 steals and forced 33 turnovers.
“I really do believe that the team that can take care of the ball and that can control the rebounds will win (this) game,” Close said following the win against Creighton.
Texas is led by guards Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins, who both earned All-Big 12 first team honors during the regular season, averaging 13.7 and 14.8 points respectively.
But the Bruins are familiar with the Longhorns.
“These guys have been playing against each other for a long time,” said coach Karen Aston. “They know each other.”
Guard Lashann Higgs grew up with junior transfer guard Japreece Dean in the Austin, Texas area, while Canada and Billings played with Atkins on the USA Women’s U23 National Team in summer.
This season, the Bruins faced the Longhorns in a closed scrimmage at the beginning of the season, but both teams have added important pieces to their rosters since then.
Dean, who transferred from Texas Tech, became eligible to play in mid-December for UCLA and guard/forward Joyner Holmes rejoined Texas after suspension due to university due to team violation. The reserves have averaged 7.3 and 6.8 points, respectively.
UCLA was eliminated by Texas in the Sweet 16 two years ago, the first time the former No. 1 recruiting class – Canada, Billings and Hayes – made it to the regional semifinals.
The Bruins led for most of that game, despite shooting just 30.5 percent. Canada and Billings, sophomores at the time, each logged 20 points, but a team scoring drought that included just one made field goal in the entire fourth quarter cost them the game.
This time, Close said the Bruins are going to need contribution – especially outside the paint – from other key players so that Canada and Billings don’t draw in all the double and triple teams. The two are averaging 16.7 and 15.3 points this season, respectively.
“We’re really hard to beat if we make threes,” Close said. “I’ve always said that if we have two of either Hayes, Dean or (junior guard) Kennedy Burke … have a good shooting night, we’re really difficult because then we are able to get the ball to the middle of the floor.”
They made the Sweet 16 the following year as well, but fell to a Connecticut team that had an undefeated season until losing in the Final Four.
The trio still has not been able to make it over the hump, as the Bruins have not reached the Elite 8 since 1999.
This is their last chance.
“No program in UCLA basketball history has made it three times in a row and we’ve done it and we’re not done,” Hayes said. “If anything I think we’re ready, (and) I know we’re ready to conquer this and exceed in ways that we haven’t before.”