ALBANY, N.Y. — The Bruins have never beaten the Huskies in program history.
But over the years, a tradition was born.
“I do get a bottle of wine from (UConn coach Geno Auriemma) most of the time,” said coach Cori Close. “Last time we went there, he gave me a bottle of wine, and I returned the favor when they came to (Los Angeles).”
No. 6 seed UCLA (22-12, 12-6 Pac-12) will face No. 2 seed UConn (33-2, 16-0 AAC) for the fourth time in five years, but this year in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The Bruins upset No. 3 seed Maryland 85-80 to advance to its fourth consecutive regional semifinal Monday night.
“We will have to play our best basketball of the year to have a chance to win this game,” Close said. “But isn’t that what you want? You want to be in situations and competitive environments that demand your best.”
UConn has played in every Final Four since 2008.
“(Auriemma) is such a legendary coach,” said sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere. “What he’s done at UConn is unmatched.”
Auriemma has led the Huskies to 11 national championships and 19 Final Four appearances in his 34 years with the program. UCLA lost to UConn by an average of 23 points in their last three matchups, including a regular-season loss in 2018 and a Sweet 16 loss in 2017.
But the Huskies – who did not finish the regular season undefeated for the first time since 2014 – outlasted No. 10 seed Buffalo by just 12 on Sunday, which marked their narrowest second-round victory since 1999.
“(UConn is) a high-tempo, high-scoring team,” Onyenwere said. “That’s something we’re going to have to focus on within these next 24 hours, just how to contain everybody because they are scoring at all different type of ways.”
In UCLA’s win over Maryland in the second round, the Bruins were able to outrebound the Terrapins, including 27 offensive boards, which earned UCLA 12 more possessions on the game.
The Bruins shot just 36 percent from the field Monday, but Close said offensive rebounds are what allow the team to raise its confidence in its shooting because they’re able to have each others’ backs.
“Your shooting percentage goes up tremendously on an offensive rebound,” Close said. “Sometimes our best offense has been getting a decent first shot that’s a predictable shot (so) that we can go get a second opportunity.”
Offensive boards are also what gave UConn trouble in its game against Buffalo. The Huskies allowed 25 offensive rebounds and 13 more possessions, helping the Bulls close the gap in the fourth quarter.
“If we get the same amount of possessions that UConn does, we’ll lose,” Close said.
The winner of Friday night’s matchup will take on the winner of No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed Oregon State in the Elite Eight on Sunday. But whether UCLA or UConn moves on, both coaches have expressed their gratitude for one another.
“Going from an assistant to taking the UCLA job – that’s a big job,” Auriemma said. “A lot of young coaches that have done that kind of a move have not been successful, but she has. So I’m happy for her and proud of her.”
And Close said the same for Auriemma.
“I just have really appreciated the way they have opened up their doors,” Close said. “(They’ve) allowed our staff to fly back there to watch practice. I’ve gone back there two different times in addition to that. And you know, I do appreciate that he appreciates good wine as well, and it’s been a fun exchange.”