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Moon’s Musings: Best, worst outcomes for women’s basketball’s WNIT run

UCLA women’s basketball players watch their teammates from the bench. The Bruins will commence their Women’s National Invitation Tournament run by hosting UC Irvine in Pauley Pavilion on Friday. (Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

By Francis Moon

March 15, 2022 12:19 a.m.

After barely missing out on a spot in the Big Dance, UCLA women’s basketball (14-12, 8-8 Pac-12) accepted its invitation to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, drawing a placement in Group 1 of the bracket. As the highest finisher in the Pac-12 to not make the NCAA Tournament, the blue and gold received an automatic bid to the WNIT. The Bruins will first play UC Irvine (21-11, 14-4 Big West) at Pauley Pavilion on Friday for the chance to face either Air Force or San Francisco in the second round. Potentially hosting multiple games, UCLA will go for its second WNIT championship in as many tries since 2015.

Best case: WNIT champions

After UCLA’s last-second loss to Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament earlier in March, coach Cori Close said it’d be difficult to say her team wasn’t among the top 68 in the nation.

Though Close wasn’t able to make her seventh NCAA Tournament appearance, the Bruins will still have a chance to prove their coach right.

UCLA finished the regular season with its worst record since the 2014-2015 season and went into the conference tournament with a slim chance at earning an at-large bid. But while it could have fizzled out without a fight, the blue and gold gave the Ducks – who received a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament – a legitimate scare by taking them to the final buzzer.

But in a season of low valleys and few peaks, the dramatic loss was still a high point of the Bruins’ season.

UCLA ended its regular season with two wins – including one over then-No. 12 Arizona – and bested USC in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament for its third win of the season over its crosstown rival. And it was only one possession away from pulling off the upset over Oregon.

Close also said in Las Vegas the team was the healthiest it had been all season, and her team’s matchup with Irvine will be 15 days removed from its conference tournament loss.

The health and stamina of players such as graduate student guard Jaelynn Penn and redshirt freshman forward Angela Dugali​​ć – who both came up big in the team’s conference tournament games after missing time in the regular season – will be crucial to the Bruins’ tournament run, as will the status of junior guard Charisma Osborne, the team’s leading scorer this season.

Despite the array of unfamiliar opponents standing in its way, UCLA should be able to cruise to at least the quarterfinals. If it can exact revenge on Oregon State for its loss in the regular season, there’s nothing stopping it from winning two more games and claiming its second WNIT title under Close.

Worst case: Quarterfinal loss

The Bruins haven’t defeated the Beavers in more than two years.

And needless to say, the Beavers will easily be the Bruins’ toughest potential matchup in their bracket group.

Granted, the two teams have matched up just once in each of the last two seasons. But UCLA has only taken one of its last six matchups versus Oregon State, with the one victory coming in overtime.

Essentially, the Beavers have had the upper hand in recent history regardless of rankings, meaning the Bruins’ higher finish in the regular season – which gave them an automatic bid to the WNIT – won’t be a signifier of who will win.

UCLA took a 14-point loss in Corvallis on Jan. 30, but it was without Osborne, Penn and Dugali​​ć. Now, with the Bruins closer to full health, the two teams’ potential second matchup of the season should be a much closer contest.

But the Bruins cannot overlook their conference opponents, who are led by guard Talia Von Oelhoffen’s 13.7 points per game. Forward Taylor Jones was the only other Beaver to record a double-digit scoring average with 12.4 points per contest, but she has not seen the court since Dec. 19 and will miss the rest of the season.

Von Oelhoffen has scored eight or fewer points five times this season, with the Beavers winning just one of those five games. And in Oregon State’s double-digit Pac-12 tournament semifinal loss to Stanford, Von Oelhoffen was limited to 3-of-15 shooting while the team shot 29.6% as a whole.

This makes UCLA’s defensive game plan simple: contain Von Oelhoffen.

But Von Oelhoffen and forwards Ellie Mack and Taya Corosdale combined for 54 points on 16-of-27 shooting in the team’s win over UCLA in January.

If the Bruins can’t stop Von Oelhoffen or execute the defensive game plan the Cardinal utilized, they may be in for an early exit in the WNIT.

Assuming UCLA can get to the quarterfinals smoothly with no Power Five schools on its portion of the bracket, this may be where the team’s season ends if it can’t get past its conference neighbors from up north.

Editor’s pick: WNIT champions

Despite the hiccups this season, I’m still taking an optimistic view.

Though it may receive some scares as it makes its way through its region of the bracket, UCLA should be able to take advantage of its high seeding and inferior potential opponents.

Should the team meet Oregon State – another high seed in Group 1 – in the quarterfinals, UCLA will overcome the aforementioned fits the Beavers have given it in the past.

Aside from Von Oelhoffen, Mack has been on a hot streak of late, putting up 10 or more points in eight of her last nine games after doing so four times through Oregon State’s first 18 games of the season. But the Beavers have lost all but three of those contests while defenses throw the kitchen sink at Von Oelhoffen.

Other supporting players such as Corosdale have been inconsistent all year, and I don’t expect anyone else to emerge as a reliable scorer this late into the season.

With the defense of Osborne and Penn to bother the Beavers’ leading scorer, the blue and gold will be able to redeem its regular-season loss and comfortably defeat Oregon State to reach the semifinals.

With two more rounds to win after that, the Bruins will be riding their momentum and will be a difficult matchup for whoever makes it out of the other three groups in the bracket. Close showed once that her team can dominate the WNIT pool in 2015, and she’ll do so once again to assert her claim that her team should have received a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Eight Bruins walked during Senior Day on Feb. 23 and will likely be playing their final collegiate games in the WNIT.

Though the Bruins headed into the season with national championship aspirations, they will extract extra motivation from being left out of the Big Dance and send off its graduates by winning the WNIT championship.

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Francis Moon | Sports senior staff
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats.
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats.
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