It was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
The Bruins lost a ton of upperclassmen, including Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, and were calling on some new faces to play increased roles. There were the early struggles, with a series of heartbreaking losses that seemed to be an omen for the entire season. There was a midseason reality check, where the Bruins lost 4 games to three of the best teams in the conference and also Southern Cal.
But despite all of that, the Bruins continued to show the heart and tenacity that has become something of a trademark of coach Cori Close’s squads over the years. They went on the road and staged a comeback against Oregon, not to mention other road victories over Utah and Arizona State. And it was that drive to never give up that once again carried the Bruins to victory today, as the UCLA Bruins walked into College Park and came away with an 85-80 victory over the third seed Maryland Terrapins to secure their 4th straight Sweet 16 berth.
The stat of this game has to be the offensive rebounds, as the Bruins were able to grab an astounding 27 against the strong interior play of the Terrapins. That led to a bevy of second chance points and a huge shot advantage of 80-68. That disparity kept UCLA in the game despite shooting only 36.3% from the field.
What also helped? Free throw shooting. As someone who has forced themselves to watch the vast majority of games by the men’s squad, it has to be said just how enjoyable watching this team has been from the free throw line, and this game was no exception, as the Bruins made 20 of their 21 free throw attempts, including Japreece Dean icing the game with 2 huge free throws with less than 30 seconds left. Compare that to the Terrapins, who went 15-25 from the line and could not hit free throws down the stretch.
And for one last thing before we get into individual honors, the Bruins absolutely dominated the 4th quarter, which has become something of a calling card of the team so far in the tournament. The Bruins outscored the Terps 19-9 in the final frame, an impressive feat considering Maryland had just scored 31 points in the quarter prior to storm back and take the lead heading into the 4th. When they needed it most, the Bruins were able to find that extra gear, and weren’t intimidated by the raucous road environment they were in.
Now for some individual shout-outs. Michaela Onyenwere, Japreece Dean, and Kennedy Burke were all outstanding, with Onyenwere being a force on the inside, Dean hitting four of her nine three-pointers (along with going 8-8 from the FT line), and Burke operating from the midrange. It was a three-headed hydra of an attack that Maryland had no answers for for long stretches of the game. That helped the Bruins, especially since the Terrapins seemed to focus on shutting down Lindsey Corsaro from outside after her 18-point performance on Saturday. And a special shout-out to Lajahna Drummer, who was not great from the field but had eight(!) offensive rebounds and went 5-6 from the FT line, and was a general nuisance whenever she was on the court.
Earning a fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance, especially in a rebuilding year, is nothing short of astounding, and as great as the Bruins were to get to this point, we do have to once-again congratulate Cori Close, who has proven to be a great coach who is building a strong program.
Now for their reward: a date with the UConn Huskies, one of the most dominant programs in women’s basketball and the same team that knocked them out of the Sweet 16 two years ago. For some reason, this has not felt like the same dominant Huskies as we’ve seen in recent years, but this is still a team that UCLA will have to play their hearts out to beat.
The good news? I don’t think anyone can doubt whether they possess the heart required to succeed.