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Sweet Sixteen! UCLA Women's Basketball Faces a Texas-Sized Challenge

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The third-seeded Bruins have a Sweet Sixteen matchup today with the second-seeded Texas Longhorns.

@UCLAWBB

NCAA Tournament Round of 16

#3 UCLA Women's Basketball (26-8, 14-4)

Opponent: #2 Texas (30-4, 15-3)

When: 11:00 AM PDT, Saturday, March 26, 2016

Where: Websterbank Arena, Bridgeport, CT

AudioBruin Live Audio

Video: ESPN

Live StatsESPN ScoreboardNCAA Game Center

UCLA Official Game Preview | UCLA Game Notes | NCAA Interactive Bracket

Despite not playing great basketball in its first two NCAA Tournament games, UCLA finds itself in the Sweet Sixteen. But the #3 Bruins (26-8) face a particularly tough challenge this morning against #3 Texas (30-4). Like Oregon State--the team that gave the Bruins the most trouble this season--Texas has an elite center that will cause matchup problems for Coach Close.

However, after playing Oregon State three times in 2016, UCLA has plenty of experience in dealing with a tall, dominant post player. And as a quick glance at the NCAA bracket confirms, the Pac-12 was an awfully strong conference this season. The Pac-12 still has four teams in the field, and two of them--Stanford and Washington--have already booked places in the Elite 8.

The winner of today's showdown between the Bruins and the Longhorns will probably have the privilege of playing #1 Connecticut in, coincidentally, Connecticut. In other words, the time for UCLA to play its best basketball of the season is now.

The Bruins Hold Off Southern Florida to Advance

UCLA seemed to be cruising to a comfortable win when it took at 16 point lead into the locker room at halftime. The Bruins had, for the most part, kept USF's leading scorer Courtney Williams in check, and if not for UCLA's generosity in sending the Bulls to the charity stripe, the score would have been even more lopsided.

But as has happened too many times this season, UCLA had a bad quarter, so as the fourth quarter began, the Bruins' lead had been trimmed to just 3.

Thankfully, Jordin Canada lifted her game for the final ten minutes. Canada had been struggling on offense since the tip-off, but in the fourth quarter, she scored 17 of the Bruins' 22 points, and that proved to be just enough to hold of the Bulls, giving the Bruins a 72-67 win.

Canada led the Bruins with 19 points, but UCLA had reasonably balanced scoring with Kari Korver (12 points), Nirra Fields (14 points), and Monique Billings (11 points) all registering double-digits in points. Lajahna Drummer pulled down a dozen rebounds to go with eight points, and Korver (yes, Korver!) led the team with six assists.

Although Coach Close will have been delighted to advance to the Sweet 16 in spite of a less than impressive performance by the Bruins, she has to be concerned about the Bruins recent inability to put together four solid quarters of basketball. This stretch of inconsistency goes back to the Pac-12 Tournament two weeks ago, and it is not a result of UCLA playing tougher competition. Frankly, neither Hawai'i nor Southern Florida are good enough to explain the Bruins' inconsistency in their halfcourt offense in the past four games.

Scouting the Longhorns

Texas has been using a four-guard starting lineup recently, but all schemes to defend against the Longhorns have to start with a plan for keeping 6'7" senior center Imani Boyette in check. She's the Longhorns' leading rebounder (9 boards/game) and second-leading scorer (11.3 points/game) even though she plays less than 23 minutes per game, on average. Her backup, 6'5"  junior Kelsey Lang, is a force inside too. Lang averages nearly 7 points a game in limited action.

Sophomore guard Brooke McCarty (5'4") is Texas' backcourt leader. She leads the Longhorns in scoring (11.6 points/game) as well as in minutes played. She's also an exceptional three-point shooter at 40.9%.

5'8" senior Celina Rodrigo runs the point for the Longhorns. She's primarily a distributor rather than a creator, and averages just 5.3 points/game.

Texas' other backcourt starters are 5'9" senior Empress Davenport and 5'11" Ariel Atkins. Although Davenport averages nearly 7 points per game, she's not a particularly good shooter, hitting just over 30% of her shots from the field. Atkins is the only other Longhorn that poses a significant scoring threat among the starters. She averages 10.7 points/game, is a highly efficient shooter (53.5% from the field), and has averaged over 18 points in Texas' first two tournament games.

Freshman Lashann Higgs is the first guard off the bench. She's scored 10+ points in each of the Longhorns' tournament games, and is averaging nearly 7 points per game.

Texas won both of its tournament games comfortably. The Longhorns opened with an 86-42 rout of Alabama State before registering an impressive 73-55 win over Missouri. Unlike the Bruins, Texas enters today's game playing some of its best basketball of the year.

Key Matchups

The matchup that will get the most attention is Monique Billings against Imani Boyette. Billings has some experience guarding bigger, stronger opponents, but she is still prone to relying too much on her athleticism and not enough on positioning. Fortunately for the Bruins, Boyette is foul-prone, and Billings quick feet make her very difficult to guard.

Of course, if Kacy Swain unexpectedly is available for today's game, then she'll likely be called upon to do the hard work of defending Boyette. Although Swain is less athletic that either Billings or Drummer, she's experienced, smart, and tough.

The second matchup to watch is Nirra Fields against Brooke McCarty. Coach Close may choose to have Canada guard McCarty, but in either case, whoever gets the assignment can't afford to drop off in help defense--McCarty is too dangerous from the perimeter.

The last matchup to keep an eye on is Lajahna Drummer against Ariel Atkins. Drummer is a true forward and may create problems for the Longhorns defensively.

Final Thoughts

  • Expect to see UCLA play a lot of zone defense today. The Bruins can't afford to leave Billings without help against Boyette.
  • If the Bruins fall behind early, they will have a very difficult time fighting back against the Longhorns. Texas is a second half team.
  • Like UCLA, Texas likes to push tempo and uses a high-pressing defense to create turnovers and easy baskets. Neither team thrives in its halfcourt offense.
  • UCLA is 1-5 against top-10 teams this season, although the majority of the losses were by 4 points or less. In terms of big game experience, Texas has the advantage.

Go BRUINS!