March S[imulation]adness: UCLA looks to contain Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

The Bruins close in on a Final Four

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UCLA coach Cori Close has no illusions about the task ahead of her team, seeded second in the Greenville region, as they take on South Carolina, the top seed, for the chance to go to the 2020 Final Four in New Orleans.

It starts with slowing down Aliyah Boston, and few have managed to do that at all this season.

“I had a chance to coach Aliyah with USA basketball last summer,” Close told High Post Hoops. “She is a great player and an even better person.  She will be a handful.  She has had a great freshman campaign.  We need to defend her before she touches the ball.  Deny her, box her out, and push her out of scoring areas.  If you let her catch it where she wants it, you’re ‘doomed.’  We have to do our work early.”

This was the strategy deployed by Teri Moren and Indiana in South Carolina’s lone loss. That is not to say it will be easy — the Hoosiers provided South Carolina with its lone blemish all season. (Incidentally, UCLA beat Indiana earlier this season.)

Even so, UCLA presents its own challenges to South Carolina. Each game in this tournament, a different Bruin has stepped up, most recently Natalie Chou, who hit five threes in UCLA’s Sweet 16 win over Old Dominion.

“Natalie’s versatility is limitless,” Close said. “It’s been fun to watch her display her wide range of skills in this tournament.  She is just figuring out all the areas of the game she can impact, possession by possession.”

Under Close, UCLA has become a team capable of going into hostile environments and winning, and South Carolina’s home state crowd will be no different. This is a group that went to Stanford and won earlier this season, though, and Close has a plan to get her team ready for this Final Four doorstep game.

“I think the reason we have been such a good road team over the last couple of years is because we don’t give our energy away to things out of our control,” Close said. “We get tighter as a unit, we focus on things that really matter, and we take great pride in preparation (nutrition, focus, scouts, unity, game plan, etc…).  Preparation can be elite no matter where you are.  That gives us great confidence.  I LOVE that South Carolina will have a great crowd.  The energy will be electric and it is great for the the growth of our game.”

As for the growth of UCLA, a program that won a championship under Billie Moore did so back in the AIAW days. This would be UCLA’s first NCAA Final Four. But Close, as ever, has her vision on the longer horizon.

“The tradition of excellence at UCLA is unparalleled,” Close said. “It is a standard that drives women’s basketball every day.  It would mean so much to us to be in a Final Four and competing for a national title.  It keeps me up at night and I am driven to get us there.  BUT, it will never trump our real mission.  We want to create an UNCOMMON transformational experience that teaches, mentors, and equips them for life BEYOND UCLA.  WE believe coming to UCLA is not just a 4 year decision but a 40 year decision.  We want both here: a national championship and a deep, heart-level impact.”

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