A trip to the NCAA tournament may not have been in the cards for the Bruins, but the blue and gold are headed back to the WNIT for the first time since winning the tournament in 2015.
WHO: UCLA vs. UC Irvine
DATE: Friday, March 18
TIME: 7 p.m. PT
LOCATION: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
TV: UCLA Live Stream/Pac-12 Networks – Dave Marcus (Play-by-Play)
UCLA currently ranks No. 41 in the NET Rankings, and since they were the top Pac-12 team not to earn an NCAA tournament big, the Bruins picked up an automatic invite to the WNIT.
UC Irvine, which ranks No. 136 in the NET, earned the automatic big out of the Big West.
UCLA comes into the tournament sitting at 14-13, suffering a one-month COVID-19 break followed by a string of injuries that resulted in a decisive 2-7 midseason stretch. The Bruins may be 10-11 since the start of December, but nine of those losses came to NCAA tournament-bound teams.
The strength of schedule combined with injuries certainly set UCLA back, but coach Cori Close was able to get her rotation back to nine deep by the end of the campaign. The Bruins picked up one win in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas two weeks ago, but lost 63-60 to Oregon in the quarterfinals the next night.
UCLA is averaging 66.4 points per game this year while allowing 61.7, but their opponents are outshooting them 37.0% to 33.5% from 3-point range on the season.
Guard Charisma Osborne leads the Bruins with 16.4 points per game while also averaging 4.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists a night. Forward IImar'I Thomas averages 15.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, sliding in alongside Osborne on the All-Pac-12 First Team, and that top duo is complemented by guards Jaelynn Penn, Natalie Chou, Chantel Horvat and Dominique Onu in addition to post players Angela Dugalic and Izzy Anstey.
UC Irvine is currently 21-11 after going 14-4 in Big West play. In nonconference play, though, the Anteaters lost to USC and Arizona State, who UCLA went a combined 4-0 against this year.
However, the Anteaters won 10 of 12 to close out the regular season and even won two games in the Big West tournament. UC Irvine lost to top-seeded Hawaii 59-48 with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line just six days ago.
UC Irvine is averaging 67.3 points per game this year while allowing 61.4, putting their numbers almost exactly in line with UCLA's. Sitting at 31.2% from deep on the season, though, the Anteaters may be unable to capitalize on the Bruins' lackluster perimeter defense, even if they limited their own opponents to just 28.3% shooting from distance this year.
In the nine meetings these two sides have had all-time, the Bruins have won each and every one of them. The most recent matchup came in 2015, when UCLA won 83-48 in Pauley Pavilion.
The winner of the game will play Air Force on Sunday. The Falcons picked up their first-ever postseason win of any kind Thursday on the road against San Francisco.
UCLA currently has the best chance to make the WNIT quarterfinals out of all 64 teams in the field, also boasting the third-best championship odds at 15.59%, per omnirankings.com. UC Irvine has just a 0.02% chance to win it all, third-worst among surviving squads.
A WNIT title has spelled future success in the past, most notably with UCLA itself. The Bruins won the tournament in 2015, then made the Sweet 16 for four consecutive years with a 2018 Elite Eight trip mixed in as well.
Arizona won in 2019, then played in the NCAA championship game in 2021, 2018 champion Indiana made the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2017 winner Michigan went to the 2021 Sweet 16.