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UCLA women’s basketball to face uphill climb against Colorado, Utah this weekend

Freshman forward Lina Sontag defends the opposing player. Sontag currently averages 5.3 points per game for the Bruins. (Mattias de los Rios Rogers/Daily Bruin)

Women's Basketball


Colorado
Friday, 6 p.m.

Boulder, CO
Pac-12 Networks
Utah
Sunday, 11 a.m.

Salt Lake City, UT
Pac-12 Networks

By Gavin Carlson

Jan. 27, 2023 3:40 p.m.

During any season, the mountain road trip in the Pac-12 is a unique test.

High altitudes in both Colorado and Utah consistently present endurance challenges regardless of each team’s quality on the court.

But in 2023, the trip features two ranked teams and – in coach Cori Close’s opinion – one of the nation’s best leaders, coach Lynne Roberts.

“If I had to vote today, Lynne Roberts would be my coach of the year,” Close said.

No. 8 UCLA women’s basketball (17-3, 6-2 Pac-12) will face two ranked opponents back-to-back for the first time this season when it travels to No. 25 Colorado (15-4, 6-2) on Friday before squaring off in a top-10 matchup against No. 9 Utah (16-2, 6-2) on Sunday. Second place in the Pac-12 will be on the line as the Bruins, Buffaloes and Utes all share identical conference records and remain one game behind No. 3 Stanford, which currently holds first place.

In the past few years, Utah’s program has gone from below average to a top-10 ranking. After finishing 14-17 and 5-16 three and two seasons ago, respectively, the Utes finished 21-12 last season before racing to their 16-2 start to this season’s campaign.

When discussing Roberts, Close called out fellow Pac-12 coaches for refusing to vote for underrated coaches in order to avoid giving them recruiting assistance.

“Sometimes coaches don’t want to do that (vote for certain coaches) because they don’t want her to be able to brag about that in recruiting,” Close said. “But if they deserve it, they deserve it. Roberts is the one in that conversation this year. She’s doing it with young teams.”

Utah boasts the seventh-highest scoring offense in the nation at 85.4 points per game, and its 49.7% field goal percentage ranks fourth in the country. Behind forward Alissa Pili – whose 20.9 points per Pac-12 game is the highest in the conference – the Utes rank first in the conference in regular season offensive efficiency.

UCLA is historically dominant against Utah, as the Bruins are 18-3 all-time in the matchup’s history. After the Utes won the first two matchups between the two teams in 2000 and 2001, the mountain school went 0-18 before earning its first win against the blue and gold in 21 years last season at Pauley Pavilion.

Before the Bruins attempt to avenge that loss, they’ll first have to focus on a Friday night contest against another team that went unbeaten against them last season.

Colorado defeated UCLA in both Boulder and Westwood last season by a combined 21 points. Now the Buffaloes have snuck into the rankings, and their only two conference losses are at the hands of top-10 teams in the Cardinal and Utes.

Colorado also upset then-No. 8 Utah in the second matchup between the two schools this season on Jan. 6.

While the Utes expect to challenge the Bruins with their top-ranked offense, the Buffaloes will look to defend home court behind their strength on the defensive end.

Colorado’s defense is giving up 57.1 points per game which ranks third in the Pac-12, and it held Utah, then-No. 14 Arizona and Stanford all below 68 points in the month of January alone.

Despite the differences in the upcoming opponents’ strengths, graduate student guard Gina Conti said the team always focuses on using defense to control the pace and style of the game.

“We always go back to what we do best and what our anchor is,” Conti said. “Whatever type of offense they run, we just focus on our defense and dictating their offense, so we don’t have to worry about all the different actions.”

Conti will be making her debuts against the mountain teams in her sixth collegiate season after beginning her career at Wake Forest and missing all of last season with UCLA because of injury.

But Conti is certainly not alone in her lack of familiarity with the region.

The Bruins’ five freshmen – all of whom average more than 13 minutes per game – will get their first experiences playing at the collegiate level with altitude as a factor. Freshman forward Lina Sontag, who grew up in Germany, said this will be her first time stepping foot in either state.

Sontag has seen her role increase drastically in recent games for the blue and gold. After playing at least 20 minutes just once across her first 16 games, the versatile 6-foot-3 international player has been inserted into the starting lineup in four of the last five games and has surpassed the 20-minute mark in her last four contests.

The young forward came close to her first career double-double when she tallied 11 points and 8 rebounds in UCLA’s 12-point comeback win at Washington last Friday. She added another seven points and four rebounds in the Bruins’ tight victory at Washington State two days later.

Sontag and the rest of the blue and gold will look to earn their second-straight 2-0 road trip behind strong team play and a secret ingredient.

“They’ve been preparing us with beet shots,” Sontag said. “It’s beet juice that’s supposed to help our lung capacity. Apparently it’s a big thing. We’ll see how that goes.”

With the powers of their secret stuff – beet juice – the Bruins will begin their road trip Friday at 6 p.m. in Boulder and finish out the weekend competing against Utah on Sunday at 11 a.m.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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