Differing UCLA, Oklahoma to vie for Sweet 16 berth

Emily Bessoir tries to beat the Sacramento State defense. UCLA Athletics photo.

In facing off tomorrow night for a spot in the Sweet 16, UCLA and Oklahoma look like opposites, on paper.

The guard-heavy Bruins feature a star senior in Charisma Osborne, and five talented freshmen, lead by scoring machine Kiki Rice, who were the No. 2 recruiting class coming into the program. With eight newcomers, they worked to learn each other, and had some stumbles in the midst of Pac-12 play. But in the conference tournament they took down favorite Stanford in the semifinals to advance to the championship game, where they lost to Washington State.

Against Big Sky champs Sacramento State in game 1 of the NCAA Tournament last night, UCLA played looser and more relaxed than they had all season in running to a 67-45 win. All but one of the 10 who took the floor scored, and they executed and defended consistently from wire to wire.

The Sooners feature a veteran trio that has played together for five years under two different coaches: Madi Williams, Taylor Robertson and Ana Llanusa. They have a cast that can shoot the lights out, and which is excellent in transition.

In the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament, Oklahoma stumbled. Against Portland in the first round this weekend, they let the Pilots’ defense stifle their rhythm, and it took until the second half of the game for them to lock in and play their own game. The Sooners won, 85-63.

Both teams have been ranked most of the season, and have almost identical records. But the Bruins played South Dakota State and Tennessee early, and then took No. 1 South Carolina to the limit before the national championships pulled out the win. Oklahoma coach Jennie Baranczyk said that changes the kind of team that their opponents are.

“I don’t know if you can actually count UCLA’s freshmen as freshmen, so let’s be real…..they are so talented,” Baranczyk said. “We are not going into this game saying, we have experience and therefore we are just going to show up and the experience takes care of itself. You’ve got to work, and it’s March, and anybody can do anything.”

She said sometimes there’s a benefit for younger players in “just playing.”

Madi Williams scores over Portland defenders. Oklahoma Athletics photo.

“That’s where I’m hoping in this game tomorrow, it’s going to be a great game for women’s basketball, but it’s not a youth versus experience. What (the Bruins) have had as experience is pretty darned good for a first year.”

UCLA coach Cori Close has her own concerns about their opponent, who she watched play in the game prior to theirs.

“When you look at their shot chart, they way they attack up the right side of the floor in transition and skip to the other side of the floor, the success that the have with just that action, is over 50 percent of their offense,” she said. “It’s remarkable how quickly they attack in transition and how well they find shooters.”

Close said defense will be key for the Bruins.

“They have got a lot of weapons who know how to stretch the floor, who are versatile. So I’m worried about a lot of things in terms of stopping them, but it starts with transition (defense) and ends with rebounding.”

Players have taken a cue from Close, who has urged them to have fun. Rice, who said she has dreamed of playing in the NCAA Tournament all her life, said she was excited going into the tournament, and is ready.

“I think throughout the season, my confidence has gone up, as I’ve got more experience playing games,” she said. “Knowing what my team needs from me, reading the game – it comes from that.”

Close said the difference between the team they were even six weeks ago and who they are now is that they learned how to deal with various types of adversity in game situations.

“I think our identity is more solidified,” she said. “We worked really, really hard at that. It hasn’t been easy, but we are more confident in who we are, and when we are at our best.”

The Sooners have high self-esteem because of their familiarity with each other.

“Since we have been playing together for so long, we have this connection that not a lot of other teams have,” Robertson said. “We already know what each other is going to do before we even do it, and it just makes playing really easy.

No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 5 Oklahoma tip Monday at 7 p.m. PT on ESPN2.