UCLA hopes to make deep NCAA Tournament run
LOS ANGELES (AP) UCLA's women's basketball team believes its program is on the rise and is searching for its first trip to the Final Four.
The Bruins open up against a surging Boise State squad on Saturday.
''We are positioned to make a deep run,'' said UCLA coach Cori Close. ''But in order to be able to do that, you can't think about making a deep run. That's the reality.''
The fourth-seeded Bruins (23-8) host the Broncos (25-7) with Texas A&M (21-11) meeting 12-seed Penn (22-7) in the second game.
The Bruins advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 17 seasons last year and very much want to take their program to the next level this time. They have been placed in a good opening spot for the first two games, hosting at Pauley Pavilion where they have won 27 straight.
''Obviously we want to do better than we did last year, but right now we're just focusing on one day at a time,'' said guard Jordin Canada, who leads the team in scoring at 17.4 per game. ''If we play well and play to our potential, obviously we can go very far.''
Yet a road block could wait even before returning to the Sweet 16. No.1 Connecticut, which owns a 107-game winning streak and the last four NCAA championships, would be their likely opponent should they advance to the third round.
Boise State is searching for its first NCAA Tournament victory in four appearances. The Broncos, however, have won 10 consecutive games.
''They have our attention,'' Close said.
Guard Brooke Pahukoa leads the Broncos in scoring at 13.6 per game, while center Mrijke Vanderschaaf - at 6-3 their only starter over 6 feet - averages 10.3 points and a team-best 7.2 rebounds.
Monique Billings averages 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds for the Bruins.
Both teams like to shoot the 3-pointer, where the Broncos have hit 33.2 percent compared to the Bruins' 29.2 percent mark.
''We know how to grind through hard games,'' Pahukoa said. ''We don't give up. It doesn't matter if we're down by 20 or four, we're going to play the same way.''
Penn also has never won an NCAA Tournament game in three previous attempts and meets a Texas A&M team with a 10-3 record in first-round games.
The Aggies, however, come in having lost five of the last seven games, while the Ivy League champions have won seven consecutive games and 13 of its last 14.
The Quakers are led by junior forward Michelle Nwokedi's 15.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Aggies coach Gary Blair said he recruited Nwokedi, from Missouri City, Tx., but the forward wanted to attend an Ivy League school.
Penn plays the more deliberate pace, and runs multiple set plays with backdoor screens.
''Penn will not beat themselves,'' said A&M coach Gary Blair. ''They move the ball and run a lot of different things. A very well coached team.''
Guard Danni Williams' 16.8 points per game leads the Aggies, but 6-5 center Khaalia Hillsman averages 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 62.5 percent, and Anniel Howard averages 10.6 points and 10.4 rebounds.
The Aggies haven't played since losing in the SEC semifinals to Mississippi State 66-50 two weeks ago.
''We've looked great in practice,'' said Aggies guard Curtyce Knox. ''Hope it carries over.''
Despite their historic lack of tournament success, two of Penn's previous NCAA appearances appeared in the past three years. They lost to another Pac-12 Conference team, Washington, by 12 last season.
''This year we're bringing more maturity,'' said Penn guard Anna Ross. ''We have a more veteran team. I think we'll bring composure.''