UCLA

UCLA women's next big road test comes against Texas in Sweet 16

The women's basketball team at UCLA had one of the best home records in the country this season. But on the road?

Not so much.

Which is why Coach Cori Close looked at the heavy highway traffic that delayed her team's arrival for Friday's practice at Webster Bank Arena as an omen more than an inconvenience.

"I did feel right at home, having the 405 right next to where I am," said Close, who team was 15-1 in Westwood and 11-7 everywhere else.

But a 20-mile traffic jam is just one of many obstacles the Bruins have had to overcome to make it to the Sweet 16 of an NCAA women's basketball tournament for the first time since 1999. To keep that magical season alive, UCLA (26-8) must now beat powerful Texas (30-4) in Saturday's Bridgeport Regional semifinals.

Connecticut (34-0), the three-time defending national champion, meets Mississippi State (28-7) in Saturday's first semifinal.

Texas figures to have both experience and momentum on its side since it is playing in the NCAA's final 16 for the second consecutive season and won its previous two tournament games by 62 points combined. Plus, it beat UCLA by 10 points in their most recent meeting last season.

However the Bruins have grown since then, winning 26 games in a season for the second time since Close came to UCLA in 2011. Only one other women's coach in school history has had two 26-win seasons.

"There's a lot of basketball tradition at UCLA," Close said. "And it hasn't been on the women's side."

That may be changing. Last spring the Bruins won the NIT, just the second national title in the history of the women's program and the first since 1978's AIAW championship, four years before the NCAA added a women's competition. They also enter Saturday's semifinal with eight consecutive postseason wins; only UConn, with 20, has more.

"This is what they came to UCLA to do," Close said of her players. "They really wanted to take this program to places it's never been, to accomplish things that have not been accomplished and to do it in an uncommon way."

Texas poses a new challenge for the Bruins, starting with 6-foot-7 senior center Imani Boyette, who attended the private Windward School in Los Angeles alongside UCLA's Jordin Canada. Boyette, ninth in the country with 101 blocked shots, also played with UCLA's Kacy Swain and against the Bruins' Lajahna Drummer and Kari Korver growing up.

That familiarity makes Boyette seem less intimidating, Canada said.

"Playing with her in high school, I've definitely seen — obviously everybody makes mistakes," she said. "It's just being able to take advantage of those moments."

The biggest chore for Texas and its stout defense will be stopping Canada and Nirra Fields, who combined for 31.2 points a game, leading a fast-paced offense that averaged 74.1 points a night.

In the first semifinal, top-ranked UConn puts its 71-game win streak on the line against a program that is 0-10 in games against a No. 1 team.

"I think everybody in the country that has a heartbeat understands what you're dealing with," Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said.

But UConn senior Breanna Stewart, who is seeking her fourth straight NCAA championship, said the Huskies aren't resting on past accomplishments.

"Right now we're just chasing one [title]," said Stewart, who is averaging a team-high 19.2 points per game and ranks fourth in the nation with 115 blocks. "This is our senior year, the biggest year of our career. And we want to make sure it's the best one."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 26, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Texas is UCLA's next big road test - The Bruins, who have been better at home, face the Longhorns in the women's Sweet 16." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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