After claiming their first win over a top-three team since 2008, the Bruins will have an opportunity to do it again – this time against the top-ranked team in the nation.
No. 5 UCLA women’s basketball (3-0) ended its year last season at the hands of No. 1 Connecticut (3-0) under coach Geno Auriemma, but on Tuesday, the Huskies will pay a visit to Pauley Pavilion.
However, for coach Cori Close, this game is not about revenge, but rather expanding the spotlight on the women’s game.
“Win or lose, I want it to grow the game and I hope some little girls get more excited about playing basketball because of this game,” Close said. “It’s bigger than us, it’s bigger than (Connecticut), and I think it has to be the way in which we grow the global game.”
Connecticut is one of the most successful NCAA programs in the country and has been for decades. Since Auriemma took over as head coach in 1985, the Huskies have gone 994-135, good for a .880 winning percentage.
Connecticut has also won 11 national titles in that span, failing to reach the NCAA Tournament only three times, in Auriemma’s first three seasons.
“His culture is one of sustained excellence and they have had a lot of different, great players come through,” Close said. “The culture has been bigger and better than any individual.”
Since arriving in Westwood before the 2011-2012 season, Close has had plenty of success herself. She has won 25 games in a season three times and has recruited players such as senior guard Jordin Canada, who was recently named Pac-12 Player of the Week after recording a double-double in an upset win over then-No. 3 Baylor on Saturday.
Canada scored 20 points on 9-of-19 shooting and dished out 11 assists in 39 minutes against the Huskies in March. UCLA fell to Connecticut 86-71 and were sent home in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
The Huskies extended their record-setting winning streak at the time to 109 games, but that record was eventually snapped by Mississippi State in the NCAA championship game. Regardless, Canada acknowledges the standard that the Huskies’ program has set for the sport.
“I think what I love most about that program is just how they continue to – no matter who they are playing – always compete within themselves,” Canada said. “That is something special that you don’t see in every team – and also how every player on that team is versatile and they are efficient.”
Junior forward Kennedy Burke, who played 37 minutes in the Sweet 16 matchup last season, also has high praise for Connecticut, but likes the Bruins’ chances come Tuesday.
“Obviously they have one of the best coaches in (Auriemma), but as far as us and them, we are kind of the same in size and matchups,” Burke said. “We have to rebound the ball and get back in transition defense and on the offensive end, we have to take care of the ball, stay poised and stay calm.”
UCLA only turned the ball over six times in that matchup, but never got things going on the offensive end, scoring less than 20 points in three of the four quarters.
The Bruins are averaging 95.7 points per game this season, and will need to stay around that number considering the Huskies are averaging 85.7 points per game, all against ranked opponents.