It was midway through the first quarter, and UCLA already had a 13-point lead. The Bruins hadn’t allowed a field goal yet. A first-round Pac-12 tournament bye was already in place. But coach Cori Close still shouted as if there were seconds left in a championship game.
“I wanted them to feel from me that I’m going to treat it” like the postseason, the ninth-year coach said after UCLA’s 77-54 rout over Utah on Sunday at Pauley Pavilion. “It’s here. You cannot rest for one second.”
No. 9 UCLA kept its focus through shooting woes and senior celebrations, and secured the program’s best Pac-12 finish in Close’s nine-year tenure. The No. 2 seed Bruins (25-4, 14-4) will face No. 7 seed USC or No. 10 seed Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Japreece Dean, who was honored during the pregame senior day festivities along with Ally Rosenblum, had a game-high 16 points with eight assists, scoring just one field goal while going 14-for-14 on free throws.
With their coach imploring them to compete every possession, the Bruins overcame shooting 31.9% from the field with sustained energy. They had 29 offensive rebounds and a season-high 55 total rebounds. They pulled down five offensive rebounds in one possession.
The Utah bench agonized over the sequence. Michaela Onyenwere smiled fondly at it.
“That’s fun basketball right there,” said the junior who scored 15 points with 11 rebounds.
“They are very good and so explosive,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts, whose team shot 28.6% from the field. “And when they play as hard as they did today, they are scary good.”
UCLA has been ranked in the top 10 since Dec. 10, but hasn’t always played like it. During the past month, the Bruins have been as likely to dominate a ranked opponent — No. 4 Stanford in Maples Pavilion on Feb. 7 — as to struggle against a Pac-12 bottom-feeder. One week ago, UCLA lost at Washington, which finished ninth in the conference.
But on Sunday, the Bruins outscored the Utes (13-16, 6-12 Pac-12) in each quarter, completing a four-quarter sweep for the first time this season. After slow starts plagued the team in the past two weeks, UCLA secured two wire-to-wire wins this weekend again Colorado and Utah. The season is reaching its March Madness crescendo, and Close hopes her team is approaching its peak as well.
“It’s go-time,” Close said. “You prepare all year to try to be playing your best [right now].”