UCLA women’s basketball to advance to 2nd round of WNIT with UC Irvine win
Graduate student guard Natalie Chou drives in against UC Irvine guard Nikki Tom. Chou jump started a 14-0 UCLA run in the second quarter to give her team the lead for good. (Marc-Anthony Rosas/Daily Bruin)
By Francis Moon
March 18, 2022 9:12 p.m.
This post was updated March 18 at 10:01 p.m.
With the Bruins facing a four-point deficit early in the second quarter, Natalie Chou squared up from the right wing.
After sinking her second 3-pointer of the game, the graduate student guard came right back on the next possession with another long-range bomb to give the Bruins a 20-18 lead.
The two 3s marked the beginning of a 14-0 run for UCLA. After neither side was able to lead by more than three in the first quarter, the blue and gold used the second-quarter stretch to pull away and hold onto the lead for good.
Behind a game-high 19 points from Chou, UCLA women’s basketball (15-12, 8-8 Pac-12) avoided an upset against UC Irvine (21-12, 14-4 Big West) in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The Bruins are now 4-0 all-time against the Anteaters and will face Air Force in the second round of the tournament on Sunday.
Chou, who finished the night shooting 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, said she was glad to have another chance to compete with her teammates as she begins the home stretch of her final collegiate season. Despite the fact that a loss would have signaled her final game at UCLA, the graduate student added that she didn’t let that affect her enjoyment.
“I didn’t really feel pressure,” Chou said. “It’s just fun to be out there with the girls again.”
Though UCLA held the lead for the majority of the contest, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Bruins in their first game in over two weeks.
After five misses to start the game, redshirt freshman guard Dominique Onu – who missed the Pac-12 tournament with an injury – scored the blue and gold’s first field goal just over four minutes into the game with a layup. Neither side would pull away by more than three points for the remainder of the quarter, as the Bruins shot 5-of-18 in the period.
Despite its first-quarter shooting woes, UCLA was able to take a 14-13 lead into the second quarter behind its defense and rebounding. The team sent back four shots from the Anteaters early while grabbing six boards on the offensive end compared to three for the away team.
The Bruins swatted another four shots in the next period to record eight blocks in the first half, including three for Chou – already a season high.
Graduate student forward IImar’I Thomas – who recorded a game-high plus/minus of plus-29 – said the team’s intangibles were what allowed it to maintain control of the game.
“We really pride ourselves on the little things. That’s part of the standard of the program,” Thomas said. “Even if our offense isn’t going well, … we need to impact the floor in other ways.”
In the second quarter, the Bruins were able to pull away using the 14-0 stretch, shooting 42.9% in the period while keeping the Anteaters scoreless for over seven minutes. Forward Naomi Hunt scored eight of Irvine’s 10 points in the second quarter, including five points in the last minute of the half.
Coach Cori Close said though it wasn’t the team’s night offensively, it was able to push the pace and turn defense into easy offense.
“When you get that many stops in a row, it should create more easy offensive opportunities, especially in transition. The good news is we found a way to do that,” Close said. “Even though we weren’t being rewarded on the offensive end, we kept at it on the defensive end.”
Coming out of halftime, Chou once again stepped up – this time to make sure the Bruins held onto their lead.
After Irvine scored its seventh straight point to cut the deficit to three, the guard knocked down an open look from the top of the key. A minute and a half later, Chou sank another long-range shot from the right wing – her fourth 3 of the game – to give the Bruins a 34-25 lead midway through the period.
Chou scored eight points in the third period on 3-of-3 shooting, helping UCLA hold at least a three-point lead for the entirety of the quarter.
Still, Irvine refused to cave as guard Kayla Williams banked in a last-second heave from near halfcourt to close the third quarter, bringing the UCLA lead back down to six. To open the final quarter, Williams hit another 3-pointer to once again cut Irvine’s deficit to one possession.
However, the Bruins wouldn’t allow a late-game comeback and answered right back with five straight points. After a hot-shooting third period, the Anteaters were held to 2-of-14 shooting in the final quarter to finish the game with a 32.7% mark from the floor and fell behind by double digits with under two minutes to play.
Behind 11 combined fourth-quarter points from junior guard Charisma Osborne and Thomas – who scored nine of her 13 points in the second half while adding 12 rebounds – the blue and gold was able to close out its opponents by ending the game on a 9-0 run.
Close said the team has much to learn from the ugliness of its first-round victory as UCLA shifts its focus to its second-round matchup Sunday.
“It never felt like we found a rhythm,” Close said. “But that’s the great thing about this, … that we found a way to win, and we still have lots that we can grow from and lots that we can learn.”