UCLA tries to avenge loss to South Dakota State in WNIT

UCLA tries to avenge loss to South Dakota State in

UCLA head coach Cori Close believes South Dakota State and her Bruins should be in the NCAA tournament.

Instead, the Bruins will face the Jackrabbits for the second time this season, this time competing for a berth in the WNIT championship game.

It will take avenging an early season defeat to get there.

“Neither of us were playing our best basketball back in November,” Close said on Wednesday. “… I watched their [Summit League tournament] game against South Dakota, and South Dakota ended up being a Sweet 16 team and almost beating Michigan. And their only loss in conference was to South Dakota State. I mean, they’re a really good basketball team.”

The Bruins lost 76-66 to the Jackrabbits at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida at the end of November, a time when UCLA was ranked No. 15 in the country. From there, their grasp on the top 20 slipped and they never reentered, dealing with a plethora of injuries. A COVID-19 pause canceled three games that could have helped UCLA eek into the NCAA tournament.

UCLA, now healthier, hit its stride in time for the postseason, winning seven of its last eight games, including a triple-overtime victory at Wyoming, one of the most unforgiving gyms in the country. The Jackrabbits, though, are a reminder of a time when the Bruins struggled, having lost three of five during that stretch in November.

Close, who coached with Jackrabbits head coach Aaron Johnston during the 2021 U19 World Cup, rattled off several reasons the Jackrabbits are such a tough matchup: They get rebounds on 39% of their offensive misses, they have the second-highest offensive efficiency in the country and, perhaps most important, they play a similar style to the Bruins.

“I told our team, you know, we’re pretty darn good,” she said. “And so we have to go and execute our game plan and make them guard us. But I think both of us like to spread the floor. We want to shoot the three, we want to take to the paint. You know, there’s a lot of similarities. We’re both very versatile. We switch a lot of screens. So I think it’s really going to be a players’ game.”

Eight of the 15 Bruins are seniors or graduate students, so every game extends their careers. Given the way the pandemic has disrupted the last two years, that carries extra weight.

Their time at UCLA nearly ended against Wyoming, when the Bruins needed to tie the score in the final 90 seconds to force each overtime. Natalie Chou and IImar’I Thomas, both graduate students, forced the first two overtimes.

UCLA guard Natalie Chou shoots against Oregon guard Sydney Parrish during the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament on March 3 in Las Vegas.

(David Becker / Associated Press)

Graduate student Jaelynn Penn has been in this spot before, winning a WNIT championship with Indiana in 2018. She contributed a double-double in that title victory over Virginia Tech.

The Bruins don’t lack leadership, but her experience has helped in a grueling tournament with their third game on the road, after wins at Wyoming and Oregon State.

“I just know from that experience how much it helps the program,” Penn said. “How much bigger it is than just ourselves, as individuals to have an experience of the foundation that is set, moving the program forward and the girls coming in next year and how we hold ourselves. So it’s super important for us to go here and win this thing and just realizing that it’s bigger than us.”

UCLA won the WNIT title in 2015; after that they went on to four straight NCAA Sweet 16s from 2016 to 2019 and to the 2018 Elite Eight.

It’s not the NCAA tournament berth they were hoping for this season, but they’ve made the most of their circumstances.

Getting back to the top requires handling another challenge on the road; they’ve done it before. Now they just have to do it against a team that’s already defeated them once this season.

“We’re not going to make any excuses,” said Close. “We’re going to lean into the heart and we’re going to go have a great experience.”

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