Cori Close looked relieved.
The UCLA women’s basketball coach, admittedly nervous before tipoff, had watched her team dominate its second-round game in the NCAA tournament and earn a shot at top-ranked, unbeaten-since-2014 Connecticut.
“[UConn is] a great team; they obviously have our respect,” Close said after the Bruins, the No. 4 seed in the Bridgeport Regional, routed No. 5 Texas A&M, 75-43, Monday at Pauley Pavilion. “But my team has my respect and I need to lead them the same way that we’ve done it all year long.”
This is the first time the Bruins (25-8) have advanced as far as a regional semifinal for a second consecutive season. Last season, as a No. 3 seed, UCLA fell to No. 2 Texas in a Bridgeport Regional semifinal — a victory away from playing top-seeded Connecticut.
A day after the bracket was announced this month, Close held a team meeting to gather reaction about a potential repeat trip to Bridgeport and possible run-in with the Huskies.
Players were “all over the map,” Close said.
“Some of them were like, ‘I’m excited to play Connecticut, but I don’t want to go to Bridgeport; it’s far and it’s cold,’” Close said. “I think they’re a competitive group, so I just wanted to get a pulse of where we were building from.”
Said guard Kari Korver, before the tournament started: “Initially you’re kind of like, ‘Awe, dang, UConn.’ But after a second you think about it and you’re like, ‘No, we could be the team that could go and beat UConn.’”
Connecticut (34-0) has won four consecutive NCAA titles and 109 consecutive games, including blowout victories over No. 16 Albany and No. 8 Syracuse in the first two rounds of this tournament. Only three teams have come within 10 points of them this season.
“They’re a really good basketball team,” UCLA guard Jordin Canada said. “But at the moment we’re focused on us and what we can do to get better.”
Said Korver: “I think if we continue to give the type of effort we’ve given the last two games, it’ll be a lot of fun.”
The Bruins defeated No. 13 Boise State by 27 points in a first-round game, then proved even better in the 32-point blowout of Texas A&M — the largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game in the program’s history.
Best for last
Korver scored 18 of her 21 points in the first half against Texas A&M on a personal-best seven-for-10 shooting from three-point range.
“I think Cleveland might have the wrong damn Korver,” Aggies Coach Gary Blair said, referencing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyle Korver after the game. “That [Kari] Korver is pretty damn good. Give her a little bit of credit because her release, if I’m LeBron, I’m trying to get this one too.”
Korver, a fifth-year senior and a cousin of Kyle Korver, drew a standing ovation when Close removed her from the game at Pauley Pavilion for a final time.
“She brings her heart and soul into everything,” Close said. “Our culture reflects that.”
Korver scored nine points — all three-pointers — in the victory over Boise State.
Canada sparks offense
Canada tallied back-to-back double-doubles, her eighth and ninth this season, against Boise State and Texas A&M.
The junior guard had 15 points and 16 assists against the Broncos and followed with 12 points and 11 assists against the Aggies.
“I just felt that as a team we wanted to share the ball,” Canada said. “We didn’t get good shots, but great shots on offense.”
UCLA shot 58.2% against Boise State, including 58.8% from beyond the three-point line, and 56.6% against Texas A&M.
Get on the boards
UCLA played aggressive defense against Texas A&M, an improvement over its effort against Boise State.
Monique Billings and Kennedy Burke each blocked two shots and combined for four steals as the Bruins held the Aggies to 30% shooting, 18 for 58.
However, defensive rebounding continued to be an issue. The Aggies had 18 offensive boards two nights after the Broncos grabbed 22.
“We talked about that and we still lost the battle of the boards,” Korver said. “That’s something we need to take care of.”
Billings entered the tournament as the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 10.7 per game, but managed only seven against the Broncos and two against the Aggies.