Women's Sweet 16: Will UCLA's rebounding be enough to beat UConn?

Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Even when things appeared bleak this season, UCLA coach Cori Close was able to hold onto a good feeling about her team. Despite four consecutive losses in January, she sensed there could be a turnaround.

There was. The Bruins pulled off two close victories at Arizona State and Arizona to end that month. It has been a steady build since, so much so that the thought sixth-seeded UCLA could challenge No. 2 seed UConn on Friday (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET) in the Sweet 16 in the women's NCAA tournament doesn't sound crazy at all.

"Yeah, they lost two great seniors [to graduation], but you would never know it watching them play on film," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the Bruins. "I'm just really impressed by what they do. I just can't believe it's the same team that I saw in St. Thomas."

Indeed, at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in November, the Bruins were clobbered by 34 points by North Carolina, lost by one in overtime to Kentucky, and fell by four points to South Florida.

At the same event, the Huskies cruised past Mississippi and Purdue, and topped St. John's by 10 points. Back then, you wouldn't have expected a UConn-UCLA matchup in the Sweet 16. But the Bruins began to jell despite the losses of guard Jordin Canada and forward Monique Billing to the WNBA.

Now, Auriemma says he thinks this is a UCLA team that might even pose more problems than the Bruins did last year, which is saying something since UCLA was an Elite Eight team in 2018.

To get that far this season would require the program's first victory over UConn; the Bruins are 0-5 against the Huskies, including a 15-point loss in the Sweet 16 two years ago. For things to be different this time, UCLA knows there is one absolute: The Bruins have to hit the boards as hard as they have all season.

"I have kids who understand who we are. We aren't the best shooting team in the country," Close said. "We have to have each other's back, and at the same time, I don't want kids thinking about their shot. I want them to step up confidently.

"Sometimes our best offense has been getting a decent first shot that's a predictable shot that we can go get a second opportunity. Because that shooting percentage is pretty darn good."

The Bruins had 16 offensive rebounds and 40 overall in their first-round victory against Tennessee. Then in their upset of third-seeded Maryland, UCLA went to town on the offensive boards, grabbing 27 and helping to produce 27 second-chance points.

In its second-round victory over Buffalo, UConn gave up a season-high 28 second-chance points -- the only game this season in which the Huskies allowed an opponent to score more than 14 such points.

Redshirt senior Lajahna Drummer leads the Bruins in rebounding at 8.7 per game, with sophomore Michaela Onyenwere right behind at 8.3. Senior Kennedy Burke brings in 6.1 per game.

"I think they're just super aggressive and one of the best rebounding teams in the country," UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson said. "For us, that's something we've struggled with, and so that's something we've really got to focus and be ready for."