No one talks about it, but Japreece Dean thinks about it.
She knows that if No. 7 UCLA knocks off No. 3 Oregon on Friday, the Bruins are tied for first in the Pac-12.
With five straight 20-win seasons and four straight Sweet 16 appearances, the Bruins are enjoying the most successful stretch in program history. But nagging deficiency is they’ve never finished higher than third in the Pac-12 during coach Cori Close’s nine-year tenure.
That streak could end this year. A win Friday at Pauley Pavilion at 8 p.m. would give UCLA the head-to-head tiebreaker with Oregon as the teams play only once in the regular season. There are just three weeks left until the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
“I definitely think it’s a big moment, big game for the program,” Dean said.
UCLA is already on track for a historic season. The Bruins (21-2, 10-2 Pac-12) started the year with a school-record 16 straight wins. They’re coming off their first road sweep of Stanford and California since 1999. With the momentum of the program building, they have a chance to solidify their spot among the conference’s elite against the Pac-12 front-runner that’s won 10 straight games.
“This is what we’ve come to UCLA to do,” junior Michaela Onyenwere said, “to play against top five teams in the country.”
Oregon, a Final Four team last year, has a “three-headed monster of greatness,” said UCLA assistant Tony Newnan, who is responsible for the Oregon scouting report. Not only do the Ducks (22-2, 11-1 Pac-12) have Sabrina Ionescu, whose 24 career triple-doubles are twice the previous NCAA record, but they have Ruthy Hebard, who Newnan called “one of the greatest post players to play in the last decade.” And the Ducks have Satou Sabally, another athletic 6-4 forward who could be a first-round draft pick in this year’s WNBA draft as a junior. Then there are stout defenders and elite shooters everywhere else.
“So sounds pretty easy,” Newnan joked.
Despite Oregon’s overwhelming talent, four of the past five matchups in the series have been decided by five or fewer points. UCLA pulled off an improbable 22-point comeback last year on the road. However, the other close games went to Oregon. Last year’s Pac-12 tournament semifinal overtime loss still stings 11 months later. The year before, the Bruins had a 13-point lead in the semifinals but went scoreless for the final five minutes and lost by three.
But the pain from the losses also breeds confidence. The Bruins believe they are on the correct path. The scouting report is right. The mind-set is there. They just need the final result.
“When two great teams meet, one of the teams is going to lose,” Newnan said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost a couple of them but I think that keeps us motivates us to fight for the next one.”
The one lopsided defeat in the past five matchups was a 20-point blowout in Pauley Pavilion. The Ducks dominated by 19 on the boards, Newnan pointed out.
Rebounding has been a constant battle for the undersized Bruins who have built their identity under Close on the boards. They’ve been outrebounded in each of the past three games, including a 16-rebound deficit against California last Sunday. The Bruins needed overtime to survive against the conference cellar-dweller.
So even with energy around the program rising, the Bruins aren’t buying their own hype yet.
“We’re a good team,” Onyenwere said, “but we haven’t really tapped into our potential like we know we can.”