Kari Korver is UCLA's spiritual leader

UCLA opens play in the NCAA tournament Saturday with the goal of extending its season, and the career of Kari Korver.

Korver isn’t the Bruins’ best player, but she leads the team in motivation.

“Shoot, I want to coach for Kari,” Bruins Coach Cori Close said after practice this week. “Kari has served the individuals in this program, she has served the mission of this program and she has sacrificially loved the people in this program.”

Said teammate Jordin Canada: “Everything that Kari does behind the scenes is just unbelievable … she just cares about this team so much and is really the face of UCLA.”

Korver, a member of Close’s first recruiting class at UCLA in 2012, has played in every game of her five-year career with the exception of a redshirt season that she took after suffering a severe knee injury. This season, Korver is averaging 8.0 points and 3.0 rebounds as one of two players to make all 31 starts.

“It’s always been more about my relationships with the girls on this team than how I performed on the court,” said Korver, who is known to leave handwritten notes in teammates’ lockers after a tough practice.

Said Canada: “She’s always just encouraging us. That’s something that people don’t see.”

Korver’s career will stretch at least another 40 minutes Saturday when the Bruins (23-8), the No. 4-seeded team in the Bridgeport Regional, plays host to No. 13 Boise State at Pauley Pavilion.

A perfect ending for Korver and the Bruins would be to advance to the Final Four in Dallas, but to do it they not only would have to defeat Boise State and win again on Monday, but they would also have to get past undefeated Connecticut, the top overall seeded team, in a regional semifinal.

UCLA reached the third round last year before falling to Texas. The Bruins have not made it beyond regional play since 1999.

Boise State (25-7) enters the tournament on a 10-game win streak after winning the Mountain West tournament. This is the program’s fourth trip the NCAA tournament, where it has yet to win a game.

“They’re athletic,” Close said. “They get out and they pressure passing lanes and they hit the three very well.”

Said UCLA forward Monique Billings: “They’re a really good rebounding team; they have really good three-point shooters. So we are just going to have to be … just really aggressive, setting the tone and just having them match our aggressiveness.”

UCLA finished fourth in the Pac-12 Conference regular season and had won five in a row before falling to Oregon State in a conference tournament semifinal.

Canada and Billings, both juniors, have led the way.

“Canada just controls the game,” Close said. “I don’t think you can always tell how well Jordin plays by just the numbers. You have to watch her.”

Canada leads the Bruins in scoring and assists, averaging 18.0 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Billings averages a double-double in the post.

“She has a various amount of post moves that make her almost impossible to guard,” Close said.

The winner of Saturday’s first-round game will advance to play the winner of No. 5 Texas A&M (21-11) and No. 12 Pennsylvania (22-7) on Monday at Pauley Pavilion.

lindsey.thiry@latimes.com

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