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Despite premature bracket release, UCLA prepares for NCAA women's tournament

Despite premature bracket release, UCLA prepares for NCAA women's tournament
UCLA's Ahlana Smith, center, cheers during the second half against Arizona State at the Pac-12 women's tournament on March 8, 2019, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)

The party’s over for the UCLA women’s basketball team.

Oh, the Bruins can still make a lengthy run in the NCAA tournament, but a planned soiree with donors to watch the selection show had to be canceled Monday after an ESPNU mix-up resulted in the early release of the brackets.

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The team was in the middle of practice when coach Cori Close was informed about the leak, which revealed that the sixth-seeded Bruins (20-12) would face 11th-seeded Tennessee (19-12) in the first round on Saturday at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Md. Close called together her players and told them what had happened.

Canceling the party was especially disappointing considering the team had not been able to hold one in recent years because of conflicts with classes.

“I was mind-blown by it,” senior guard Kennedy Burke said, “because like out of all the years, they want to mess up this year.”

Just like its recovery from a 3-5 start to this season, UCLA made the best out of a bad situation. After practice, players munched on chicken wings, egg rolls and chocolate chip cookies before devouring the specifics of the Albany Region.

Louisville is the top-seeded team in the Albany Region and Connecticut is No. 2. It’s the first time since 2006 that the Huskies did not receive a No. 1 seed. Baylor, Notre Dame and Mississippi State are the other No. 1 seeds.

The Bruins will start the NCAA tournament on the road for the first time since the 2012-13 season, when they traveled to Columbus, Ohio, and beat Stetson before losing to Oklahoma in the second round. They don’t seem to mind boarding a plane this week given their 8-3 record in away games.

“Right now, our team’s a pretty darn confident road team,” Close said, “so we’re really trying to ride the confidence that we’ve earned.”

UCLA will be the favorite against a traditional powerhouse — the only program to appear in all 38 NCAA tournaments. But Tennessee doesn’t appear capable of adding to its haul of eight national championships after posting a 7-9 record in Southeastern Conference play to finish in eighth place.

“They may have been on the bubble,” Close said, “but if you look at their roster, they’ve got a very, very talented roster.”

If the Bruins can get past the Volunteers, they will face either third-seeded Maryland, which is hosting the first two rounds, or 14th-seeded Radford in the second round on Monday.

Adrift for most of the season’s three months after the loss of seniors Jordin Canada, Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes, UCLA found itself in the desert. The Bruins have gone 11-3 since upsetting then-No. 16 Arizona State and then edging Arizona in triple overtime during a trip in late January.

The team has scored six points more per game during that stretch than it did earlier in the season while improving its free-throw percentage and turnover differential. That progress has been reflected in the team’s 4-3 record against its last seven ranked opponents after previously going 1-5 against ranked teams.

UCLA showed it could play with the nation’s top teams by overcoming a 22-point deficit to beat then-No. 2 Oregon on the road late last month, though some dismissed the victory’s significance given the Ducks were missing leading scorer Ruthy Hebard. But the Bruins nearly toppled the Ducks at full strength when the teams met in a Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal before falling in overtime.

Now they’ll get a chance to prove themselves anew in the season’s most important tournament; they just won’t get to see themselves celebrating their selection.

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“I was kind of looking forward to it,” sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere said. “You see all the videos on Twitter of all the other teams doing it so it’s a really exciting thing, but I mean, either way, we’re really just grateful to be in March Madness.”

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