On Friday night the UConn women’s basketball team will take on UCLA in the first regional round of the NCAA women’s tournament in Albany.
The Huskies and Bruins are no strangers as they have gone against one another in the past two seasons. UCLA head coach Cori Close said that this is will be an advantage for her team as they will not be shell-shocked playing UConn for the first time.
“…the mentality and confidence that we're not playing this fictitious T.V. UConn… we have been in the trenches, and we know what the mistakes have been and we know what the victories have been in terms of the little moments,” Close said. “So I think that does help us, having that past experience, but it's going to demand our best.”
Close does recognize that it will be no easy task to defeat the Huskies. The Bruins are 0-5 all-time against UConn with their last matchup being a 60-48 loss at home in 2017.
“We will have to play our best basketball of the year to have a chance to win this game,” Close said. “You want to be in situations and competitive environments that demand your best.”
UCLA started off their season iffy after going 3-5 in November, but really hit a slump in January when they lost four games in row. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said that he was amazed by how much the program has transformed since he saw them play in St. Thomas earlier in the season.
Close said that she really noticed the shift in her team after they won two away games against Arizona State and Arizona but that there wasn’t just one specific moment where her team transformed.
“I think it was a culmination of a lot of small choices that eventually hit a tipping point when we went to Arizona for that swing, to play Arizona State and Arizona,” Close said. “But I really think it was the commitment to the journey.”
Sophomore Michaela Onyenwere said that the coaching staffs’ belief in the team helped them get past that midseason hump.
“Their (the coaches) faith in us never wavered, and I think that's something that's really important for a team who's really, really new and really just kind of finding their identity,” Onyenwere said.
The Bruins’ biggest strength against the Huskies will be offensive rebounds. They average 17.2 per game, good for best in the PAC-12 and 2nd nationally.
UCLA is led in scoring by sophomore Michaela, Onyenwere, a 5-11 forward who averages 18.6 points-per-game. In Monday’s upset over third-seeded Maryland Onyenwere scored a career-high thirty points to lead her team to the Sweet Sixteen.
Senior Kennedy Burke is another offensive force for the Bruins who averages 15.4 points-per-game. Earlier in the season she became the fourth player in the program to accumulate 1,000 points, 500 rebound and 100 blocks.
Despite having star players on her squad, coach Close says that the culture her squad has created as a whole is what makes them special.
“I really am a strong believer that culture wins and that relationships are everything,” Close said. “I think I really have confidence in the relationships we've built with each individual player, and I knew what they brought not only from a skill potential standpoint, but from a heart level standpoint. And I also really believe in the culture that we've built and what we stand for.”
The Sweet Sixteen matchup between UConn and UCLA will tip-off at 7 p.m. on Friday night and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Mariana Dominguez is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.