The Bruins may be on the road, but they still made time to get their nails done together before the Big Dance.
“Being a good road team is really hard,” said coach Cori Close. “(But) we really tend to be very close-knit, so (that allows us) to block out everything else. We’ve been able to take a lot of enjoyment in silencing the crowd on the road and being the underdog.”
— Cori Close (@CoachCloseUCLA) March 22, 2019
With five wins over ranked teams outside Pauley Pavilion this season, No. 6 seed UCLA women’s basketball (20-12, 12-6 Pac-12) will face No. 11 seed Tennessee (19-12, 7-9 SEC) in the first round of the NCAA tournament in College Park, Maryland, on Saturday.
“(Tennessee’s) record is not reflective of obviously their level of talent as well as their level of capability as a team,” Close said. “Tennessee has obviously had its ups and downs, but I think we prepare from the times in which they’ve been their best.”
After hosting the first two rounds and advancing to the Elite Eight last season, UCLA will start its tournament on the road for the first time in three years. There, the Bruins will first face off against a Lady Vol team with a strong reputation.
Former coach Pat Summitt – who holds the most career wins in women’s college basketball – led the Lady Vols to eight national championships, 18 Final Four appearances and 16 Southeastern Conference titles.
“Growing up you hear Tennessee (and) you hear about what Pat Summitt left and her legacy,” said sophomore guard Michaela Onyenwere. “So just a really exciting opportunity and we’re just really excited to be playing against them tomorrow.”
Close found out UCLA’s destination at practice Tuesday after ESPNU mistakenly leaked the bracket too early, so the coach decided to interrupt practice to tell the team.
“It’s a credit to their history,” Close said. “You should’ve seen our players’ faces. … You’re a six seed playing an 11, and ‘Oh, you’re going to be playing Tennessee.’ There was a shock moment. I could see it in their faces.”
Tennessee followed up an 8-0 start to the season with a 4-7 skid. But the Lady Vols have won seven of their last 12, including a competitive 83-68 loss to now-No. 1 seed Mississippi State.
“That was an initial shock, but then you start to go to work and do your homework,” Close said. “This is a matchup, this is what we’re going to have to do to play our best in this matchup and then it becomes a little bit more normalized.”
The Lady Vols own an 18-1 head-to-head all-time record over the Bruins, but UCLA has won its last seven First Round contests. The Bruins are fresh off a semifinal finish at the Pac-12 tournament, where they fell in overtime to now-No. 2 seed Oregon.
“The Pac-12 tournament really gave us an idea of what teams we are going to play against,” said senior guard Kennedy Burke. “Tennessee is a perfect example of them and I think that throughout practice this week we have been preparing well.”
UCLA has won 11 of its last 14 games and should the Bruins win, they will face the winner of No. 3 seed Maryland and No. 14 seed Radford in the Second Round with an opportunity to advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
“We’ve hit a stride now that we know who we are,” Close said. “We’re excited to be playing our best basketball at the best time.”