#14 UCLA Women's Basketball (18-6, 10-3)
Opponent: Washington (17-7, 8-5)
When: 11:00 AM PST, Sunday, February 14, 2016
Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Live Stats: UCLA StatBroadcast
It's difficult to overstate the importance of today's game against the Huskies. With Stanford and Arizona State playing today, a UCLA win will either give the Bruins sole possession of third place or move them within one game of the first place Sun Devils. With just four conference games left for the Bruins after today, time is running out to catch the conference leaders.
Beating Washington is not an easy task. Of course the Bruins know this from their experience in Seattle last month. On that occasion, the Bruins came out flat, and the Huskies took advantage, building a 10-point lead by the end of the first quarter. Although UCLA fought back to tie the score at the end of the third quarter, the Huskies eventually pulled away thanks to 28 trips to the charity stripe.
Unlike most of the Pac-12's top-tier teams, Washington prefers to play uptempo basketball. In that respect, it makes the Huskies a lot like the Bruins. However, UCLA likes to push the tempo with its aggressive, pressing defense whereas Washington likes to launch three-pointers early in the shot clock. Coming into today's game, the Huskies have nearly 200 more three--point attempts than the Bruins. Fortunately, Washington doesn't shoot threes particularly well, but still, the Bruins will have to adjust their defensive scheme to account for the Huskies' perimeter shooters.
Another factor that will require Coach Close to adjust her defensive scheme is Washington's Kelsey Plum, the Pac-12's leading scorer. When the Bruins played the Huskies in Seattle, they held Plum to just 23 points, which is nearly 4 points below her season average. To give you a better idea of the threat that Plum poses, her 26.9 points/game average leads the conference by 7.2 points/game.
Plum also leads the league in free throw attempts (by over 50), and in free throw percentage at 89%. She's good at getting to the line and converting her opportunities.
Monique Billings had one of her worst games of the season when the teams met last month. Kacy Swain picked up some of the slack in that contest, but Swain hasn't really been much of a scoring threat since that road trip, which now is nearly a month ago.
This has to be an area of concern for Coach Close. The Bruins have only Billings as a low post scoring threat when Swain's minutes, production, and confidence dip. Lajahna Drummer is an athletic forward with good rebounding and defensive skills, but she's not a skilled post player. Paulina Hersler is a European big--she has nice range on her shot, but she prefers to play facing the basket than with her back to it. And since Coach Close hasn't included highly-regarded freshman Ashley Hearn in the rotation, the Bruins need Swain to regain the scoring threat she posed earlier this season.
The Pac-12 tournament is less than three weeks away. It will be played in Seattle this year, which means that the Huskies will enjoy a significant home court advantage. If the Bruins were to lose today to the Huskies, UCLA would be on track for a second round tournament game against the hosts. Obviously that's a scenario that Coach Close will want to avoid.
The Bruins travel to Oregon next week and host the Arizona schools in the final week of the regular season. With games still to play against the conference leaders (Oregon State and Arizona State), and with UCLA holding the tie-breaker against Stanford, the Bruins are still in contention for the Pac-12 title, although they can't afford any more losses, and they'll need a little bit of help along the way.
UCLA has to concentrate on one game at a time, though. If the Bruins can run past the Huskies this afternoon, they'll keep themselves in the battle for the Pac-12 regular season championship.