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UCLA Women's Basketball - WNIT Final Four - UCLA v. Michigan - Preview and Game Thread

The Bruins are in Ann Arbor for a WNIT semifinal contest against the Michigan Wolverines. Can UCLA take advantage of its superiority in size and athleticism to upend the Wolverines?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Michigan (20-14)

When: Wednesday, April 1, 4:00 PM PDT

Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Listen OnlineBruin Live Audio


Live Stats: GameTracker

Resources: Official Preview & Game Notes

The UCLA women's basketball team is in Ann Arbor today to take on the Michigan Wolverines in a WNIT semifinal contest. While this may not be the tournament we hoped to see the Bruins competing in--and it's certainly not the tournament we want to see the Bruins falling into in future years--it's good to see this team enjoying success. For what it's worth, UCLA's four WNIT victories represent the Bruins' longest winning streak of the season.

UCLA's journey to the WNIT Final Four hasn't been quite as comfortable as it should have been. In their opening round game, the Bruins let Cal State Bakersfield hang around until the final five minutes. Although UCLA emerged with a 70-54 victory, it wasn't entirely convincing. On the road against San Diego, the Bruins trailed at halftime, failed to put USD away in the second half, but moved on to the WNIT Sweet Sixteen with a 63-58 win.

The Bruins improved in their next two contests. (You can read a recap of the action in this week's Bruin Bites.) UCLA pulled away from Northern Colorado in the second half to earn a 74-60 victory thanks to a big scoring night from Nirra Fields. In its WNIT Elite Eight game, UCLA produced a stronger, more disciplined team performance, which resulted in a 82-66 blitz of Saint Mary's.

Today's matchup with the Wolverines represents a much more difficult challenge for the Bruins. UCLA is 7-10 away from Pauley Pavilion this season, and 3-5 in non-conference road games. And unlike UCLA's previous WNIT opponents, Michigan is a power conference team with a lot of experience against top competition. The Bruins will have to be at their best today if they are going to advance to the WNIT championship game.

Scouting the Bruins

Coach Cori Close has a young and talented squad that features a group of seven true freshman which comprises the nation's top recruiting class. The Bruins have 10 players who average 10 or more minutes per game, and Coach Close is flexible with her starting lineups and her substitution patterns.

Senior Corinne Costa (6'4") usually starts along the front line and averages about 5 points and 5 rebounds a game. On offense, she's best when facing the basket, and on defense, she relies on positioning rather than athleticism. Junior Kacy Swain (6'3") normally starts next to Costa and averages 4.2 ppg and 4.5 rpg in a little over 14 minutes per game. Senior Luiana Livulo (6'3") is in the mix here too, but she's played fewer minutes as the season has progressed.

The two most athletic members of UCLA's front court are freshmen Monique Billings (6'4") and Lajahna Drummer (6'1"). Both are long and lean, and both have a bit of rawness to their game. Billings is particularly fun to watch. She's a shot-blocker and an intimidating presence on defense. She can also collect a rebound and drive the length of the court. Billings has a back-to-the-basket game, and although she has decent touch on her shots, she needs to improve her footwork and her range of offensive moves.

Drummer plays with great intensity and confidence. She'll be a force to be reckoned with when her skills catch up to her athleticism.

Coach Close allots playing time fairly evenly among her bigs; only Costa averages more than 17 minutes per game.

All-Pac-12 junior Nirra Fields (5'9") starts in the backcourt. She's the Bruins' leading scorer (15.5 ppg) and rebounder (5.5 rpg). Fields is a remarkably versatile scorer. She can hit the three, drive and pull up for a jumper, or take the ball to the rim. She doesn't hesitate to finish against two defenders on a fast break, but her aggression leads to some poor decision-making at times. There are three things that Fields needs to work on to become a top player on the national scene. She needs to cut down on her turnovers, refine her shot selection, and improve her free throw shooting. Nevertheless, with the game on the line, you can expect to see the ball in Fields' hands.

Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Jordin Canada (5'6") starts at the point. She's ultra-quick, nearly impossible to slow down in the open court, and relentless on defense. Although Canada is the Bruins' second-leading scorer (11.2 ppg), she's not much of a scoring threat from the perimeter; her offense consists primarily of beating her defender and getting into the lane. Unfortunately, Jordin tends to play at full speed all of the time, and her decision-making suffers as a result. Although she leads the team in assists, her assist-to-turnover ratio is just 1.2.

Sophomore Kari Korver (5'9") is the third backcourt starter. She's far and away the best three-point shooter for UCLA, and she's also an efficient scorer inside the arc, averaging just under 10 points per game. Korver is also a steadying influence on offense--something this team desperately needs--and she provides a scrappy toughness on the defensive end.

Freshman Kelli Hayes (6'0") started earning more playing time midway through the season--partly due to the season-ending injury to Recee' Caldwell--and she's become an important bench player for Coach Close. Senior Madeline Poteet (5'8") has been the other beneficiary of playing time since Caldwell's injury. Poteet provides a good alternative to Canada; she's more cautious with the ball, manages the pace of the game better, and represents a scoring threat from the perimeter.

UCLA is a team in need of a tough, heady floor leader. The Bruins have been plagued by turnovers, inconsistent shot selection, and poor game management all season. The dilemma for Coach Close is that an open, fast-paced game suits this deep squad of athletic players, but at the same time, it makes them more vulnerable to their flaws.

Scouting the Wolverines

Michigan features an experienced and small starting five. Senior Shannon Smith (5'7") starts in the backcourt alongside Siera Thompson (5'7"). Sophomore Danielle Williams (5'9")--the sister of the Bruins' Dominique Williams--is the third starter in the backcourt. The Wolverines' starting lineup also features a pair of senior forwards: Nicole Elmblad (5'11") and Cyesha Goree (6'3"). The bench goes only about three deep. Junior Madison Ristovski (5'10") and freshman Jillian Dunston (5'11") give Michigan some length off the bench, and freshman Katelynn Flaherty (5'7") slots into the backcourt and provides bench scoring.

In fact, Flaherty leads the team in scoring average (14.3 ppg), field goal attempts, and three-point attempts. Goree averages a double-double with 13.9 ppg and 10.5 rpg. Smith and Thompson are the other two main scoring threats. Smith averages 13.5 points and 4.4 assists per game; Thompson averages 11.3 points and over 5 three-point attempts per game. Elmblad may not be flashy, but she contributes a solid 7.6 points and 7 boards per game.

Michigan has an efficient offense, but like the Bruins, the Wolverines are turnover-prone. And although Michigan has a pair of strong rebounders, they aren't a particularly good rebounding team. Both of these weaknesses plus the Wolverines' lack of interior length make Michigan vulnerable to a patient, inside-out offense.

The Wolverines have enjoyed a comfortable run to the WNIT Final Four. A home win over Cleveland State (72-50) in the opening round was followed by a road win against Toledo (74-58). In the round of 16, Michigan beat Missouri at home, 65-55, before posting a 69-60 road win against Southern Mississippi.

Tactics & Prediction

Against an effective perimeter scoring team like the Wolverines, I'd like to see UCLA play a lot less zone. In fact, given the athleticism of the Bruins, I'd like to see Coach Close use more aggressive defensive sets against most opponents. However, Coach Close has employed a 2-3 zone a lot this season, so we may have to hope for uncharacteristically poor shooting from Michigan's guards.

Although an open, fast-paced game makes the Bruins vulnerable to turnovers and poor shot selection, it plays to UCLA's strengths too. Michigan does not have a deep bench, so an uptempo game puts extra stress on the Wolverine starters, exposes them to a higher risk of foul trouble, and takes advantage of Michigan's propensity to turn the ball over.

Another option for Coach Close is to take advantage of UCLA's superior size by emphasising an inside-out approach on offense. However, since the Bruins have shown a lack of discipline on offense this season, I'm skeptical that the Bruins can stay within that structure for a significant length of time.

If the game is close in the final minutes, the Bruins poor free throw shooting puts them at a disadvantage. Since I don't anticipate the Wolverines falling behind early and by a lot at home, if the Bruins are going to win, they will probably have to do something that they have struggled with all season--protect a lead.

Prediction: I'm going to go with my heart rather than my head and predict that the Bruins will win by 2 in a frenetic contest.