It’s been quite a week for No. 2 UCLA.
On Monday, the Bruins ascended to the highest AP top 25 ranking in program history in taking the second spot. Friday night, the team achieved another milestone in beating No. 6 UConn for the first time in 8 tries, dating back to 1998.
Kiki Rice lead UCLA (5-0) with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while Charisma Osborne added 18 points and Lauren Betts put up 13 in the 78-67 win at the Cayman Islands Classic.
Coach Cori Close said her team was well-prepared going into the matchup with the 3-2 Huskies.
“We were confident that if we executed the game plan, we would win,” she said. “The game plan was pretty simple, but we had to do it with consistency: control the rebounds, get inside touches….our offensive rebounds were key.”
Defense was also important.
“Our ability to get stops allowed us to play the way we want to on offense,” Close said.
The Bruins got off to a quick start, and lead by as many as 19 points for the first 15 games minutes before UConn went on a run and cut their lead to 5 at halftime. UCLA began the third period scoring 7 straight points, and outscored their opponents 22-8 to take a 21-point lead into the final frame.
Paige Bueckers, who lead the Huskies with 31 points, hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 9 with just over 2 minutes left, but they were not able to get any closer than that.
Rice said she was poised coming into the game, and she and her teammates found an up-tempo rhythm together that clicked.
“We came in and executed really well,” Rice said.
Close said the mental toughness of the Bruins impressed her.
“We had mental focus, toughness and togetherness,” she said. “When something didn’t go our way, we refocused. I do think over the course of 40 minutes, we were the tougher, more together team.”
UConn was missing two starters in Azzi Fudd, who tore her ACL in a game last weekend, and Caroline Ducharme, who has concussion symptoms, and had just 10 available to play. Besides Bueckers, just KK Arnold and Aubrey Griffin, who each had 11 points, scored in double-digits.
“You can’t beat a really good team with one player,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was disappointing that we didn’t get more contributions from more people. Our combinations are really screwed up right now, so that’s got to be sorted out. We struggled, we had our runs, we just didn’t have enough.”
Close said she didn’t say anything in particular to her squad at halftime to change the way they took the floor after the break.
“We’re a mature enough team that they don’t need a rah-rah,” she said. “We need cerebral, purposeful adjustments.”
Close was pleased at the contributions across the stat column, from starters to reserves. But for all of the positives, she sees room for improvement.
“It’s such a great barometer, because we’re in November,” she said. “But we didn’t even play our best – it was a B-level game. And that’s exciting and frustrating at the same time.”
UCLA takes on Niagara tomorrow in the final day of the tournament, while the Huskies will face Kansas.