March S[imulation]adness: UCLA looks to end Old Dominion’s Cinderella run

A contrast of styles

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It’s been another strong NCAA Tournament run for Cori Close and UCLA. The Bruins find themselves in the Sweet 16, a two seed, playing in Greenville.

But while their opponent, the Old Dominion Monarchs, may be the unexpected part of this bracket — ODU is an 11 seed, the lone double-digit seed to make it to the second weekend — Close and ODU coach Nikki McCray are no strangers to one another.

“Coach McCray is such a good coach,” Close told High Post Hoops, ahead of this Sweet 16 matchup. “I got to coach with her at USA Basketball Trials last year.  I learned from her and she has my utmost respect.  She has so much fight and belief.  Her players reflect that.  Don’t let the rankings or the seed deceive you.  She will have her team ready.”

ODU was certainly ready for the difficult Power 5 teams they’ve faced to date. In the first round, the Monarchs limited Kentucky to 2-for-19 from three, reinforcing ODU’s ability to constrict teams from beyond the arc (first in the country in opposing three-point field goal percentage). And then the Monarchs took down ACC power N.C. State in the Round of 32.

Still, UCLA will be their toughest task yet, and McCray knows Close will have her Bruins ready.

“I compliment her because her teams play extremely hard,” McCray told High Powt Hoops. “They do. And I see why. Because she is very intense but also positive, very energetic, all in one same ball. She gets the most out of her players, and I was thrilled to learn from her. The one thing I know is her kids are gonna battle on the boards, they’re just gonna compete. For me, it would be great to have an opportunity to play against an amazing coach, No. 1, in her and her staff. But (also) the types of players that she brings in and the type of intensity that you’re going to have to play against for 40 minutes.”

So how will this one be decided? Well, Close isn’t as concerned about generating more looks from deep for Charisma Osborne, Lindsey Cordero and Natalie Chu as she is with what her team does with them.

“We could be in real trouble then, because we don’t make many 3’s as it is,” Close said with a smile. “As far as threes, I don’t think we have to create more.  We have been pretty wide open. We need to make more or don’t shoot ’em.  Charisma needs to shoot open threes but she needs to get to the rim, shot her mid range and get to the free throw line even more.  Same for Natalie and Lindsey.  We aren’t build on making threes.  We have to get stops, play in transition, and attack the paint.”

UCLA has been doing that all tournament long — all year long, really. And a chance for Close to take the Bruins to a Final Four is now just two wins away. Next up would be a tall task, indeed: beating South Carolina in the Gamecocks’ home state. But the present-focused Close didn’t get ahead of herself.

“Really, we would play South Carolina next…?”, she said with what seemed like a resigned smile. “I would love that opportunity and it would be a great battle. But the only way to have that opportunity is to EARN IT by breathing a very well coached ODU team.  Your behavior and actions TODAY reflect the depth of you desires for the next day.  I think we have a very high desire to battle with a great South Carolina team, but we shall see by how we compete and prepare for ODU.”

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