UCLA enters WNIT with mix of disappointment, determination
This isn’t what Cori Close wanted. A trip to the WNIT is never on the UCLA coach’s calendar for March. But as she told her team after the Bruins missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, this is what they earned.
“So make the most of what we’ve earned,” Close said Monday, one day after UCLA discovered its postseason landing spot. “Make no excuses, and let’s go compete and become and show the team what we want to become and show.”
After a challenging, injury-riddled season, UCLA ‘s postseason redemption tour begins Friday at 7 p.m. against UC Irvine in the first round of the postseason WNIT.
For a program that had not only played in five consecutive NCAA tournaments but earned a top-four seed in four of them, playing in the WNIT comes with mixed emotions.
UCLA (14-12) entered the season with high hopes, relying on an influx of talented transfers that would overcome the loss of Michaela Onyenwere, who’s now in the WNBA. Then injuries piled up, starting with forward Emily Bessoir (knee) and point guard Gina Conti (foot). Then a COVID-19 pause canceled three nonconference games that could have helped bolster the Bruins’ postseason resume. They were one of the first four teams out of the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
UCLA received a No. 4 seed and will start its push to return to the Final Four in Portland while USC is a No. 7 seed and Cal State Fullerton is No. 15.
UCLA had forward Angela Dugalic (knee) and guard Jaelynn Penn (hand) healthy and won three of its last four games, and Close praised her team’s toughness entering the postseason. The Bruins started to show glimpses of their potential in their regular-season home finale against Utah but couldn’t sustain it in a 75-70 loss to the sixth-place Pac-12 Conference team.
That loss at home was a key factor in bursting UCLA’s NCAA tournament bubble.
“We’re all thankful to have the opportunity to continue to play, but you have to deal with your own regret,” Close said. “That’s me as a coach down through all of them. You have to deal with the disappointment of, ‘I wish I was playing in that other tournament.’ And you have to have a spirit of gratitude that you still get to play.”
The last time UCLA missed the NCAA tournament cut in 2015, Close asked her players whether they wanted to continue in the WNIT. Many didn’t. Facing a decision that would define the program’s culture, Close, then in her fourth season at UCLA, pushed her team into the postseason anyway.
It paid off with the 2015 WNIT championship.
Seven years later, when Close asked her seniors for their thoughts, there was no hesitation. With the Bruins finally enjoying a healthy roster, Penn and Natalie Chou led the charge to continue no matter what.
“There’s a sense of we were just getting started with how we can play,” Close said. “And I said there’s nothing holding you back in that. Bottom line is you can play. It doesn’t matter [if it is] WNIT, or NCAA, bottom line is you get to finish on your best note. Let’s do that well.”
UCLA overcame the disappointment of a losing regular-season record in 2015 to win the WNIT, the Bruins’ first postseason tournament title since they won the conference tournament in 2006. Close’s hope that a WNIT berth would set the foundation for future success came true, catapulting the Bruins to four consecutive NCAA regional semifinals or better.
Texas Tech edged UCLA for a higher seeding in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. The Bruins begin a new March Madness run Thursday against Akron.
The WNIT has served as a strong launching point for many programs. Three of the last four WNIT champions — Michigan, Indiana and Arizona — are hosting NCAA tournament games this weekend. Arizona, which won the WNIT in 2019, played for the national championship two years later.
A young UC Irvine team seems perfectly suited to capitalize on the additional postseason experience after falling short of the automatic NCAA tournament bid in the Big West Conference championship game. The Anteaters (21-11) have only three upperclassmen and are led by redshirt freshman Kayla Williams, a first-team All-Big West selection who averages 15.5 points per game. Sophomore Chloe Webb, who leads the team with 5.7 rebounds per game and ranks second in scoring with 10.2 points, earned all-conference honorable mention.
Long Beach State (19-8) lost in the first round of the Big West tournament and will visit Oregon State in the first round of the WNIT on Thursday. Oregon State and UCLA could meet in the WNIT quarterfinals.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.