Coaching royalty throughout the region
[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]
Here in the March S[imulation]adness reality, UCLA head coach Cori Close didn’t have to go anywhere to get ready for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, hosting a pod at Pauley Pavilion.
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“We are thrilled to host in the first round,” Close told High Post Hoops. “We have one of the best home winning percentages in the country. It is something we never take for granted. It is a privilege to share this with our fans as well. We are really glad to have a 2 seed. I think our body of work shows we have earned that seed, but the only way to really show that is to go win games in the tournament.”
The Bruins finished 26-5 this season in a punishing PAC-12 conference, combining athleticism with physicality — personified most by two-way star, wing Michaela Onyenwere, along with whip-smart senior point guard Japreece Dean and freshman sensation Charisma Osborne — to create matchup problems for any opponent, especially on the offensive glass, where the Bruins finished third in the nation in offensive rebounds per game.
But it is a coach’s job to worry, and Close is no exception. The 15-seed Norfolk State finished 19th in the country in defensive efficiency.
“Norfolk is quick, athletic, and committed to defense,” Close said. “We have struggled with scoring droughts as of late. It will be important that we execute on the offensive end to get high percentage shots. We will need to play downhill vs. Norfolk and be committed to attacking the paint.”
The winner of that 2/15 matchup will face either Rutgers, the seven seed, or Texas, the ten seed.
For the Longhorns, job one is slowing down Rutgers guard Arella Guirantes, who finished ninth in the country in scoring, with 20.6 points per game.
“We are familiar with Arella’s game due to her having played in the Big 12 previously,” Texas coach Karen Aston told High Post Hoops. “She is a dynamic guard. We will try to make her touches as difficult as possible.”
This battle may well be decided on the boards, with both Rutgers and Texas ranking in the top-40 nationally in rebounding percentage. Aston views those extra possessions as the “difference-maker” in this one, but sees what happens before the shots even go up as critical to her team.
“We want to make sure we value our possessions,” Aston said. “Our focus is to make sure we get a quality shot each trip down the court. Our shot selection and patience will be essential in this game.”
While Close stressed that she’s taking anything for granted, she emphasized what an honor it will be to face either Aston, whom she battled in the 2016 NCAA Sweet 16 in Bridgeport (a game I covered in-person), or C. Vivian Stringer, the decorated Rutgers coach.
“I am sure not looking ahead of Norfolk,” Close said. “They are a great team. But I love being able to POSSIBLY host either Rutgers or Texas. Two amazing coaches that have done so much for our game. I get excited about exposing our fans to one of these historic programs. I think its great for growing our game as well as excellent competition. We will have our work cut out for us if we are able to beat Norfolk.”
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