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UCLA’s NCAA tournament run ends in Sweet 16 with 69-61 loss to UConn

UCLA’s NCAA tournament run ends in Sweet 16 with 69-61 loss to UConn
UCLA forward Lajahna Drummer, left, strips the ball from Connecticut forward Napheesa Collier, with UCLA guard Kennedy Burke defending during a regional semifinal game in the NCAA women's tournament on Friday in Albany, N.Y. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

As UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close watched the disappointment unfold around her, the tears, slouched shoulders and eventually, the gut-wrenching post-game speech, she couldn’t help but remember.

On Friday, No. 6-seed UCLA lost to No.-2 seed Connecticut in the Sweet 16, 69-61, as the underdog team that almost upset a titan. At one point, the Bruins led the Huskies by five in the third quarter, before Crystal Dangerfield came alive to seal the win for Connecticut.

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It was a different kind of letdown as opposed to when the Bruins lost their first game against Loyola Marymount to start the season 3-5.

Falling short Friday stung. But there was pride, too.

“If I had told them that if they would stay focused on the process… that they could end up playing at this level… possession-by-possession with UConn, would they have thought that was possible?” Close said. “I’m not sure they would’ve been able to dream that big at that point.”

Early on in the season, unanswered questions loomed over UCLA, of who would step up with Jordin Canada and Monique Billings gone. Doubts lingered about how successful the team could be without its stars from last season.

“Nobody thought we would be here, except the people in our circle,” sophomore Michaela Onyenwere said. “And that just shows… how much we are for each other.”

The team remained in “our Bruin bubble,” Onyenwere said, ignoring the doubts to focus on improvement. Even facing Connecticut, UCLA remained unfazed. At practice the day before the game, Close implored them: “Even now, even today, let’s get a little bit better.”

On Friday UCLA played to its strength at the glass, grabbing 19 offensive boards. But the team struggled to compensate for stretches of rough shooting, as the Huskies’ physicality stifled scoring chances in the paint. The Bruins ended the game shooting 31%, including going six for 22 from beyond the arc.

UCLA’s first possession of the game ended with a three-pointer by Japreece Dean, but it was the Bruins’ only three-pointer of the half. UCLA struggled to convert Connecticut’s turnovers into scores, as the Huskies drained wide-open threes. The first quarter closed as Onyenwere and redshirt freshman Lindsey Corsaro tripped over each other and tumbled onto the court. The Bruins trailed Connecticut by seven. In the second quarter and that deficit became 12 points.

But the Bruins did not let the game escape them. In the final five minutes of the half, a couple of made free throws from Corsaro and a jumper from senior Kennedy Burke sparked a 7-0 run. At halftime, the Bruins trailed by five points.

A 24-point third quarter secured a one-point lead for the Bruins, as their shooting improved 53.3%, including 62.5% on three-pointers.

For the first time in the tournament since its 2017 loss in the Final Four, Connecticut trailed entering the fourth quarter.

Connecticut took the lead for good eight seconds into the final period on a basket by Napheesa Collier. Then Dangerfield took over, with her key basket being a wide-open three that gave Connecticut a six-point lead, which Collier quickly extended to eight with a shot below the basket. Dangerfield scored two more jumpers in the final minutes. She ended the game with 15 points, Collier 25.

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There were more Connecticut baskets that followed — evoking standing ovations from the Times Union Center crowd. The Huskies maintained a stable lead as the Bruins shot three-pointers that bounced off the rim.

After congratulating Connecticut, the Bruins huddled around center court, eyes growing redder, arms folding around each other, and exchanged whispers. They were apart from the noise, one final time, in a season that lasted longer than anyone had expected.

“They didn’t let anyone on the outside define who they could become,” Close said. “It takes a lot of guts… and I’m really proud of how they learned to define who they wanted to be.”

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