‘We have no doubt in us’: UCLA confident it can topple top-seeded South Carolina

UCLA guard Kiki Rice, right, drives to the basket against South Carolina guard Brea Beal.
UCLA guard Kiki Rice drives to the basket against South Carolina guard Brea Beal during the first half of the Bruins’ 73-64 loss on Nov. 29. The Bruins face South Carolina again in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Saturday.
(Nell Redmond / Associated Press)

For UCLA, the saying is true. Practice does make perfect.

After a string of heartbreaking late-game collapses, coach Cori Close changed UCLA’s training regimen to finish practice two or three times a week with a must-win scrimmage. Two minutes and 30 seconds on the clock. A random score. Win and practice is over.

“Trust and believe,” senior guard Camryn Brown said, “we have stayed here before quite long times trying to win a two-minute and 30-second game.”


Once plagued by fourth-quarter meltdowns, the Bruins are now winning their tight games to keep their season alive. They exorcised their crunch-time demons on the way to their first Sweet 16 since 2019 and will face No. 1 South Carolina (34-0) on Saturday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena at 11 a.m. PDT.

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No. 4 UCLA (27-9) outscored opponents by an average of just one point in the fourth quarter and overtime during the regular season. It was the team’s smallest margin of any quarter this season. But in six postseason games, the Bruins have a 4.5-point advantage in the fourth quarter and overtime. They showed their mettle in the second round by turning a one-point deficit entering the fourth quarter into a nine-point win against Oklahoma.

Confidence earned from repeated scrimmage victories helped the Bruins turn their Achilles’ heel into a strength at the right time. For the final period of practice, Close will make up a score. Early in the week, the Bruins will trail at the start of the scrimmage against male practice players. They may be tied the next day. Close might spot them a one-point lead toward the end of the week.

No matter the situation, the Bruins have to figure out a way to win.

“Our focus and intentionality with those drills in practice has really ticked up to a new level,” freshman guard Kiki Rice said. “I think that’s what’s helped us translate our success into the games.”

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso, left, battles UCLA forward Emily Bessoir for a rebound.
South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso battles UCLA forward Emily Bessoir for a rebound during the Bruins’ loss on Nov. 29.
(Nell Redmond / Associated Press)

Close implemented the strategy after UCLA lost three consecutive heartbreakers during the Pac-12 season. UCLA made just one shot from the field during overtime in a 73-70 loss at Colorado on Jan. 27. Two days later, the Bruins blew an eight-point lead with 6:25 remaining to Utah and allowed the Utes to win the game on a layup with 0.8 seconds left. They squandered an 11-point lead with 4:49 left in the fourth quarter against Arizona on Feb. 3 and lost by five points in overtime.


It felt like UCLA “imploded” at the end of each game, Close said.

“All three of those games, we had made enough winning plays to win and we didn’t do it,” the 12-year head coach said. “So we needed to get really good at finishing.”

Stuck in the difficult stretch that might have broken other teams, the Bruins relied on their mental training that teaches them to treat each game as a learning opportunity. They studiously watched the film of each loss.

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The work paid off starting in a home sweep against Oregon State and Oregon in which the Bruins outscored the Beavers 18-7 in the fourth quarter and the Ducks by 10.

“I don’t think we’d be right here in the Sweet 16 without losing those three games,” Brown said. “I’m glad those three games happened because it taught us what we need to do in those last four minutes of a game. Who we have to lean on and become in the last four minutes of a game.”

The South Carolina game will be a test of just how far the Bruins have come.

On Nov. 29, UCLA led the defending national champions by four at halftime and was tied going into the fourth quarter. Playing in front of more than 12,000 fans in Columbia, S.C., the Bruins cut South Carolina’s lead to two with 3:41 left, but the Gamecocks responded with a 7-0 run.

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The Bruins revisited the game film this week. Close felt encouraged by how they handled South Carolina’s switches for most of the game and battled without freshman forwards Christeen Iwuala, who missed the game with an injury, and Lina Sontag, who fouled out in 10 scoreless minutes. UCLA, which lost 73-64, is one of five teams to hold the Gamecocks to a single-digit margin this season.


South Carolina coach Dawn Staley admired UCLA’s rebounding and purpose on offense. She told Close after the game they would meet again in March. The Bruins believed it, too.

“We weren’t able to finish the job in the fourth quarter the first time, so to get another shot at them when we feel like we’ve gotten so much better is a great opportunity for us,” Rice said after UCLA’s win over Oklahoma. “We’re not scared that they’re the No. 1 seed. We have no doubt in us.”