March S[imulation]adness: UCLA, Texas battle for Sweet 16 spot

Pauley Pavilion will be rocking

[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]

When crowds gather for the second round matchup between UCLA and Texas in the March S[imulation]adness, a reasonable question will be whether one player they’ll be seeing, Bruins star Michaela Onyenwere, has a chance to be the best in the history of this storied program.

But according to her coach, Onyenwere doesn’t think in those terms.

“I am not sure, but the coolest part is Michaela doesn’t care,” Close told High Post Hoops. “She just wants to be the best player she can be for the sake of this team.  I know people give lip service to that, but she really means it.  I do think Michaela could be a top 3 draft pick in the 2021 draft.”

But first, she’s got some simulated games to win, and it won’t be an easy one. Texas is an enigma. A ten seed, thanks to some losses they’d like to have back (Kansas and Hawaii are both sub-100 RPI teams), yet capable of beating Stanford, the Longhorns are ready to put a stamp on this season with a trip to the Sweet 16.

One big reason for optimism in Austin comes from Joyner Holmes, who found consistency late in the season, then posted a double-double — 18 points, 12 rebounds — in Texas’ Round 1 win over Rutgers.

“Joyner’s mindset changed as we got deeper into the season and I’m sure she sees the finish line,” Texas coach Karen Aston told High Post Hoops. “I’m proud of her ‘stay the course’ approach.”

Both coaches think this one will be decided on the boards, no surprise when rebounding has been critical to the success of each team this season.

“We must protect the paint first,” Close said. “They are so good off the bounce as well as in the post.  It will be very important to try to force them to take contested jump shots, not only because those are lower percentage shots for them but also so we can box out.  We can’t trail plays or have to rotate to help too often.  We will be too vulnerable on the back side.  We have to be able to ‘guard our yard’ and win those very tough one on one battles.  We will make them prove it from the outside first.”

This sentiment was echoed by Aston, who put it in stark terms: “On the offensive side, we will have to attack them in the paint. Simply put, this game will be won in the paint.”

Aston is a student of basketball history, too. She knows what it will mean to her, to her players, to get a big win at such a significant place in basketball history.

“I have had the privilege of coaching several times at Pauley and always feel the nostalgia in playing there,” Aston said. “It will be sweet to win regardless of the arena, but I hope our team will cherish this opportunity and have great memories to reflect upon later in their lives. We all should know this opportunity is never a given, so we have to lace up our shoes and perform.”

Regardless of outcome, this will be the final home game for UCLA seniors like Japreece Dean. Close pointed out that her team knows how that feels, however, and she believes they will be ready to balance the emotions of the day.

“Thankfully, we expect this now,” Close said. “We have hosted 3 other times since I have been there.  There is a mindset and expectation that is created.  I think we know there is finality, but we just want to keep playing.  We will honor the moment and I’m sure there will be some emotion for Japreece after the game, but JP just wants to keep playing with the people she loves, playing the game she loves.  That supersedes anything else.”

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