Los Angeles Times
Battle begins UCLA March
Bruins’ opener shows lessons from close losses
LAS VEGAS — Cori Close didn’t have time to fret about how her team lost a 19point lead to a team that had one conference win. She couldn’t agonize about the two-for-16 shooting in the fourth quarter or the eight straight missed three-pointers in the second half.
All the UCLA coach cared about after the fifthseeded Bruins survived an overtime scare against Arizona State on Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament was that they, indeed, survived.
“At this time of year, we just found a way to win,” Close said after UCLA’s 81-70 victory. “And we earned another game. That’s all I care about.”
UCLA (23-8) will play fourth-seeded Arizona (21-8) on Thursday at noon at Michelob Ultra Arena.
The No. 19 Bruins need a win against the 21st-ranked Wildcats to keep alive hope for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament, which would secure hosting rights for the first two rounds. UCLA was a No. 5 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology released Tuesday.
in the conference season, it seemed that UCLA would coast to the postseason home-court advantage. The Bruins rose as high as No. 8 in the Associated Press rankings. But a string of close losses, capped off with a 71-66 overtime defeat to Arizona at Pauley Pavilion, knocked them back.
It was UCLA’s third consecutive tight loss following a three-point overtime defeat to Colorado on Jan. 27 and a two-point loss to Utah on Jan. 29 in which Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili hit a winning layup in the final second.
When the Bruins found themselves in another nailbiter Wednesday, the lessons from their previous close calls showed up.
“It comes down to the fundamentals of our game, which is rebounding, passion plays and defending,” said Emily Bessoir, who hit two key three-pointers in overtime and finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. “Just having those past games as experience, we knew exactly who we were looking for and what we were looking for.”
Freshman Kiki Rice scored the tying basket with 1:27 left in regulation, then sent the game into overtime with a key block as time expired against the Sun Devils’ Jaddan Simmons, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Tyi Skinner led the Sun Devils (8-20) with 26 points.
Rice, the top point guard prospect in her recruiting class, finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Senior Charisma OsEarly
borne, UCLA’s lone AllPac-12 player, scored 16 points with eight in overtime to help the Bruins pull away.
“I was thinking we’re not losing this game right now,” said Osborne, who also set the critical screens in overtime to free Bessoir for her late three-pointers. “From past games, we have lost close games and I think our team did a good job of being able to execute and know what we were looking for. But really, I was just thinking, OK, how can I help my team and what do they need from me. I feel like actually, I didn’t do as great leading in the fourth quarter and I wanted to reset myself.”
Osborne and Bessoir are the only Bruins who have played in an NCAA tournament victory. Point guard Gina Conti appeared in one NCAA tournament game with Wake Forest, a firstround loss in 2021.
With the top-ranked freshman class in the country, Close said she knows her team has talent for a deep postseason run. But the pressurized moments in Las Vegas are a necessary “dress rehearsal” to ensure her players are mentally ready for higher stakes.
“I’m thinking about how do we teach these kids to know how to win?” Close said.
“Age ain’t nothing but a number . ... We don’t have a lot of experience, but so what, we don’t have control over that. But we’ve had a lot of great, pressurized moments against a lot of different styles of play and we’ve just gotta find out game by game how to figure a way to win.”