ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — UCLA coach Cori Close told her team to pack for 10 days when the Bruins left Los Angeles last week for the NCAA Tournament.
She had a feeling the Bruins would make it to the second weekend of the tournament.
The sixth-seeded Bruins did just that beating Maryland on the Terrapins’ home court before heading up to Albany. Next up is a familiar opponent in UConn, which ended the Bruins season in the Sweet 16 two years ago. Louisville will play Oregon State in the other game Friday in the regional semifinals. That’s a rematch of last season’s regional final game that Louisville won by 33 points.
“I think given the alternative to go back to LA and come back here, it was the right choice to come back here,” Close said Thursday. “We’re on spring break, so we’re not missing extensive class time staying on the east coast. It definitely would have been a detriment to go cross-country again. The next day after we won in College Park we (flew up here) and we’ve been enjoying our time up here ever since.”
It would be hard to imagine that UCLA would be in the NCAA Tournament, let alone playing in the Sweet 16 when they dropped five losses in their first eight games. That included going 0-3 in a tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands over Thanksgiving where UConn also was playing.
“They are not the same team I saw in St. Thomas earlier this year,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Cori’s done a phenomenal job with this group.”
The Bruins started off 1-4 in the Pac-12 before sweeping a weekend at Arizona and Arizona State. That started a run of 13 wins in 16 games.
“Coach’s faith in us never wavered,” said sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere. “That’s important for a team really new and finding their identity, the Arizona trip where we won both, both those wins were staple wins. It instilled confidence in us. Those are great programs and one is in the Sweet 16. It shows how much we’ve grown.”
UConn reaches Albany in a rather unfamiliar place, being the No. 2 seed in the region. The Huskies last weren’t a No. 1 seed in 2006. Auriemma’s team has reached the Sweet 16 the last 26 years. The Huskies beat Buffalo by 12 points in the second round. It was their closest game in that round since 1999.
“Winning two games and getting to a regional, it’s never an easy task and it seems like it’s getting harder each and every year as evidence by the way Buffalo played and the way some of the other games took place around the country,” Auriemma said.
Here are other tidbits from the regional:
ROCKY TOP TALK: Jeff Walz quickly deflected any talk about the open head coaching job at Tennessee that his name has been mentioned for by opening his press conference saying, “I’m the head coach at the University of Louisville. I think Geno would be a wonderful candidate for that position that is open. So before the questions start coming, I’m the head coach at the University of Louisville. I’ve loved it, enjoy it, it’s been great. So now I’ll start talking about our team so we can focus on that.”
Walz said he’s used to it saying that his name gets mentioned around this time of year every year when jobs open up.
“This comes up every March. Names are thrown out. Cori’s name is in the mix. Scott Rueck’s name is in the mix. You might as well put Geno’s name in it, and have all four from this region. It’s just what happens.”
GETTING HEALTHIER: Louisville guard Arica Carter is still recovering from a knee injury she suffered late in the season. Walz said that Carter is doing better and whenever he asks her about her healthy she’ll always say she’s “fine”.
Carter and teammate Sam Fuehring, who sprained her ankle in the ACC Tournament championship game against Notre Dame, have been rehabbing together for the past few weeks.
“I’ve been doing everything with treatment that I can do to make sure I’m ready for today,” Carter said. “I’m not 100 percent, but I’m going to find a way to go. My teammates are always there for me, and my coaches know, if I can’t go, then I really can’t go. But I’m doing treatment every day, like Sam said, three times a day. So I feel like I’m going to be ready for the tournament.”
PAC-12 PRIDE: Oregon State and UCLA are two of five teams from the conference in the Sweet 16. Oregon State coach Scott Rueck was happy to have so many teams from the conference still playing, including UCLA.
“This week, for the first time, I can really say this conference is the best one in the country,” Rueck said. “We’ve got five teams remaining out of 16, and I don’t think any of us are surprised by that. I’m not. And we’re all battle-tested. So what a pleasure to be a part of a conference that is coached as well as it is and to compete every night with your back to the wall, and that’s what life in the Pac-12 has been.
So I’m really happy for the other four schools to get to this point and excited about all the challenges that we face.”
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