Having reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for an unprecedented third straight year, the UCLA women’s basketball team is determined to make more history against Texas in the semifinals of the Kansas City Regional.
Starting at 6 p.m. Friday in Kansas City, Mo., the third-seeded and ninth-ranked Bruins (26-7) will play a team that mirrors them in many ways and is riding high after a 20-point victory over Arizona State on Monday.
“We’ve played each other in three of the last four years so I think there is a respect and a familiarity there,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, who has a 7-3 record in four trips to the NCAA tournament.
“We chose to scrimmage them at the beginning of the year because we knew both teams would be in the top 10 and it would give us a good barometer. It’s going to come down to possessions. They pride themselves on their defense and their rebounding, and we pride ourselves on our defense and our rebounding.”
Five UCLA players scored in double figures in an 86-64 rout of Creighton to rebound from a subpar tournament opener against American.
The second-seeded and eighth-ranked Longhorns (28-6) are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season and are coming off their 11th- and 12th-best shooting performances in program history. Junior guard Lashann Higgs hit nine of 12 shots against Arizona State and is shooting 78.9% from the field in the tournament while averaging 17 points.
Texas has outrebounded its opponent 29 times in 34 games and ranks second in the nation in rebounding margin at +11.4. In 12 previous meetings, each team has won six times with Texas winning the most recent matchup in the NCAA regional semifinals two years ago.
“Our guard rebounding is going to be big,” Close said. “We know Monique [Billings], Michaela [Onyenwere] and Lajahna [Drummer] are going to be great rebounders, but it’s going to be the X-factors, those other players who can come up with two or three more rebounds. I really do believe that the team that can take care of the ball and can control the rebounds will win the game.”
Close is trying to coach the Bruins to their second Elite Eight appearance. The first was in 1999 when the Bruins fell to top-seeded Louisiana State 88-62 in their sixth season under Kathy Olivier.
“I don’t think seeding affects the team’s mind-set at all,” Close added. “I think that at this point in the year, you’ve got a two and a three seed, and if we had beat Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament, we could have been a two [seed]. I’ve always said that if you can get into a regional and get to a neutral site, anyone has an opportunity. Our conference has proven that. Seed numbers are really out the window at this point.”
Senior point guard Jordin Canada finished with 21 points, six rebounds, five steals and eight assists in 31 minutes against Creighton to move past Maylana Martin (1997-00) into second on the all-time UCLA career scoring list with 2,108 points. She knows pace will be important considering the Bruins are 19-2 when scoring 70 or more points.
“I think that everybody knows who they are on this team now and everybody knows their role,” Canada said. “Everyone is playing to their potential, playing to who they are and that’s what’s different about us. Obviously, Texas is a really great team and they’re similar to us. We know it’s going to be physical, it’s going to be a battle ... but it all comes down to possessions and who wants it more.”
UCLA guard Japreece Dean, a junior transfer from Texas Tech, didn’t play in the preseason scrimmage against Texas but is looking forward to Friday’s showdown and her first Sweet 16.
“It’s a great opportunity because this is my first time even going to the tournament so I feel blessed and I think this is a great opportunity for us to make history,” said Dean, an Austin, Texas, native. “Texas is a great team. I think we’re a very different team than that scrimmage we played in. We’re a lot more together and have better energy and we’re a better defensive team. I wasn’t there for the scrimmage but I heard about it when they got back and I know that we’re a better team and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Close is all too familiar with the Longhorns’ aggressive style and knows the Big 12 Conference runners-up are one of the best teams UCLA has faced.
“We played them at home during Jordin’s freshman year, we played them again her sophomore year in the regional and of course in a closed scrimmage this year,” she said. “Karen [Aston] and her staff do a great job and we have great respect for their program.”
Friday’s winner will face No. 1 Mississippi State or No. 4 North Carolina State in the regional final Sunday.