When UCLA players sprung out of their chairs and started jumping up and down at Sunday’s Selection Show party, there was some extra joy behind their smiles.
Not only were they back in the NCAA Tournament after missing a bid last season, but they were tapped to host rounds 1 and 2 as a regional site for the first time since 2019. Prior to that, teams facing off at Pauley Pavilion for early rounds had become somewhat of a tradition.
“This day never gets old,” coach Cori Close said. “We’ve not had a selection party in four years. We’ve got a spirit of gratitude today that we get to share this moment with our family and friends, and that we get to play at home.”
The Bruins, a No. 4 seed, will play No. 13 Sacramento State – who won the Big Sky Tournament for a first-time NCAA Tournament berth – at 8:30 p.m. PT Saturday. The two teams are fairly even statistically, although the makeup of their rosters is vastly different.
UCLA is lead by senior Charisma Osborne (15.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game), freshman guard Kiki Rice (11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game), and redshirt sophomore forward Emily Bessoir (9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game).
Their stellar cast features the other four members of 2022 No. 2 recruiting class, as well as senior standouts Gina Conti and Camryn Brown. Each contributes balanced scoring across the board, which makes them a formidable unit – especially considering that they have 498 total team assists.
The Hornets are lead by senior guard Kahlaijah Dean (21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5 assists per game) junior center Isnelle Natabou (15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1 block per game) and a veteran-laden roster that has coalesced to make a dramatic turnaround this season and elevate the entire program to new heights.
An advantage for the Bruins is Rice, who adjusted to the college game quickly, and has made rising up in big games one of her calling cards. In beating top-ranked Stanford in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, Rice scored 22 points.
Experience and hunger are the driving forces for Sacramento State, which are not only riding a hot streak, but have a lot of confidence heading into a game where they could pull an upset.
Another wrinkle to the pairing is that Close and Hornets coach Mark Campbell are friends.
“He texted me two nights ago predicting this matchup,” Close said. “He said ‘can you tell the committee that you can’t match up friends in the first round?'”
The 6 p.m. game features No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 12 Portland.
The Sooners, and an experienced, all-star roster, lost to Texas in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament last weekend. The Pilots stunned Gonzaga in the championship game of the WCC Tournament to win the auto-bid.
The speed, shooting acumen and depth of Oklahoma should give them a win, but expect fiesty Portland to make it a game.