From coast to coast Monday, the best teams in women’s college basketball huddled around TVs as the NCAA tournament brackets were gradually revealed. At viewing parties, the vast majority of the 64 teams erupted in cheers and high-fives upon learning of their first-round opponents.
That wasn’t the case in Westwood, however, because most of the UCLA players were in class at the time. Their schedule happens to work out that way. Not only that, but this is an experienced group that has reached the Sweet 16 the past two years. While the third-seeded Bruins are excited to play host to American University in the first round, they’re also taking a very businesslike approach.
“I’m just ready to play,” UCLA forward Monique Billings said. “I wish Saturday were here tomorrow. It’s more so about the game. I’m not trying to get too caught up in the fairy tales.”
Fellow senior Kelli Hayes was getting a massage and watching ESPN’s selection show on her phone when she learned the Bruins (24-7) would play American (26-6), the Patriot League champion.
“It was rather relaxing,” said Hayes, who was getting her calves worked on while the rest of the women’s college basketball world was on the edge of its seat. “When I saw our name pop up, I was, `Nice.’ It wasn’t a rah-rah moment, because we saw during the course of the year that it was our destiny to make it.”
Billings and Hayes didn’t disclose this in a cocky way, but they know the capabilities of their team. Four years ago, they were part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, along with senior guard Jordin Canada, and the school has gone 94-43 since, with three consecutive 20-win seasons, its best four-year stretch since 1976-79.
“What you need to know about this team is how full of faith they are,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “They bought in to what we were coaching.”
For the first time in three years, UCLA is not in the same bracket as powerhouse Connecticut, which is 32-0, has made the Final Four in 11 consecutive years, and is in search of its 12th national title. But the Bruins do have Mississippi State in their bracket, the team that knocked off UConn in a semifinal last year.
ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said the Iowa-UCLA matchup would be intriguing if both those teams were to win their first-round games; Iowa opens against Creighton.
“But you also have to look at the No. 2 seed [in that bracket] in Texas,” Lobo said. “Texas is a team that played UConn closer than anybody else. That’s a team that’s similar in some ways to UCLA, because they really like to push it in transition. That’s their best offense, getting out and running. They’ve got some bigs inside, and experience in the backcourt. So it’s not just Mississippi State you’ve got to watch.”
Said Billings: “I just want to play. That’s how I’ve been every single year. I don’t care what bracket I’m in. Just give me the ball and let me play. I’m a businesswoman, and I’m trying to take care of business.”
For the Bruins, that means playing defense and crashing the boards. UCLA led the conference with 16.6 offensive rebounds per game, an average of 2.6 more than second-place Colorado.
“We’re going to force you into one hard shot, and we’re either going to turn you over or we’re going to outrebound you,” Close said. “We’re not going to outshoot you, but we’re going to get so many more shots on the goal that we’re going to be successful.”
It was a different kind of rebounding that paved the way for Cal State Northridge, the other school from Southern California to make the tournament. The Matadors bounced back from an 0-5 start to go 19-10 the rest of the way and win the Big West tournament title for the third time in five seasons.
Led by 6-foot-4 Channon Fluker, the conference’s women’s basketball player of the year, Northridge will play at top-seeded Notre Dame on Friday.
Even though four of its key players suffered season-ending ACL injuries, Notre Dame lost just three games this season, two of them to Louisville, another No. 1 seed.
Still, Northridge coach Jason Flowers has lofty expectations for his players.
“We’re not going to Disneyland to ride the rides,” he said. “We’re going, just like everybody else, expecting to be the main attraction of the parade coming down Main Street. It’s not a deal where we’re just happy to be there. There are 64 teams left with a chance for a national championship, and we’re one of those 64. We’re going to try to take full advantage of it.”
Fluker led the Big West in rebounding (12.1), blocked shots (2.7), double-doubles (21), and free throws made (158). She was third in the league in scoring (18.6), third in free-throw shooting (76.7%), and sixth in field-goal shooting (51.1%).
Also key for Northridge is 6-2 forward Tessa Boagni, named the Big West Tournament’s most valuable player after averaging 19.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists.