UCLA lands highest women's NCAA tourney seed in its history, but falls short of No. 1

Living up to her name this time of year has been agonizing for Cori Close.

Her UCLA women’s basketball teams have made five appearances in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. They’ve gone to one Elite Eight, matching the furthest run of any team in school history other than the 1978 bunch that won the AIAW championship.

All this getting within reach of the Final Four only to fall short has left the Bruins waiting for that big breakthrough under the coach who is nearing the end of her 13th season.

Their next push starts Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, where the second-seeded Bruins (25-6) will face 15th-seeded Cal Baptist (28-3) in a first-round game in the Albany 2 Region. This represents the highest seeding in school history for UCLA but was not the top seed the team coveted.

Close, once again.

“We had plenty of opportunities to earn a No. 1 seed and we didn’t,” said Close, whose team finished tied with USC for second in the Pac-12 standings before losing to the Trojans in a conference tournament semifinal, “so what has that taught us and will we be better moving forward? And so my job is to get us to be really good in the path that we have.”

That path could be the toughest in the tournament. The Bruins are in a bracket with scoring ace Caitlin Clark and top-seeded Iowa, not to mention defending national champion and third-seeded Louisiana State. There’s also a familiar foe in fifth-seeded Colorado, one of six Pac-12 teams to make the field.

There was some disappointment in being placed in a regional that would require a cross-country flight to New York as opposed to a relatively short trip to Portland, Ore., though the Bruins have another destination in mind.

“You know what I want even more than being in Portland?” Close said. “I want to be in Cleveland” for the Final Four.

Close said beating nationally ranked Connecticut, Florida State and Ohio State during the nonconference portion of the schedule in addition to playing so many heavyweight Pac-12 rivals should prepare her team for what awaits.

“I definitely believe that we can make a deep run as long as we’re focused on the correct things,” Close said. “I think we have to be the aggressors, that’s been something we’ve really been dealing with this week is, you know, really punching first and punching often and not that having that be a cliche but truly how we play — that every 50-50 [ball], every block cut, every physical play, you have to know what kind of battle you are entering into and we need to be the aggressors.”

It’s the second consecutive year that the Bruins will get to host first- and second-round games. Should UCLA get past the Lancers, it would face either seventh-seeded Creighton or 10th-seeded Nevada Las Vegas in the second round as part of what Close said could be one of the top subregionals.

Buoyed by the playmaking of point guard Kiki Rice, the toughness of center Lauren Betts and the scoring punch of veteran guard Charisma Osborne, the Bruins had won six consecutive games before their crushing double-overtime loss to the Trojans in the conference tournament.

But there is reason to believe that UCLA could be on the verge of its deepest NCAA tournament run. This could be Close’s deepest and most well-rounded team, with four starters averaging double figures in points and sophomore forward Gabriela Jaquez adding grit and defense off the bench.

“We’re confident going into this month that we can execute, we can compete with all the other top teams in the country,” Rice said.

Close said she hopes fans will pack Pauley Pavilion as part of a sellout crowd that can sustain the increased buzz around women’s basketball nationally and in Southern California, where top-seeded USC is also hosting first- and second-round games.

It’s going to take the Bruins being at their best to finally get to where they want to go. Close won’t cut it.

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