LOS ANGELES — Having lost two of its previous four games, the UCLA women’s basketball team knew things had to change during its final homestand of the regular season. Sluggish starts brought on by shooting slumps were leading to mental lapses throughout games that allowed opponents to linger deep into games.
“We haven’t been having as much fun because we know deep down we haven’t been playing as well as we need to,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.
The ninth-ranked Bruins went into Friday night’s game against Colorado determined to play better, smarter and more as a team, knowing these last few games would have a significant impact on their seeding for the Pac-12 Tournament and beyond. And when the final buzzer sounded following the Bruins’ 62-52 victory, Close knew her team had done just that.
“I don’t think it was really anything different for us, I just think it was us focusing better,” Close said. “Us executing the game plan better. Us focusing on our strengths and what we needed to do to play to our bests. … That’s a step in the right direction.”
UCLA (24-4 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) moved into a tie for second place with fourth-ranked Stanford and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Cardinal (24-5, 13-4). Defeat Utah (13-15, 6-11) in Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale, and the Bruins secure the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament.
Avoiding a fourth-place finish comes with the perk of remaining on the opposite side of the bracket from top seed Oregon (27-2, 16-1). As the No. 2 or 3 seed, the Bruins could only face the third-ranked Ducks in the championship game. Arizona (23-5, 12-5) is in fourth and closes its season against last-place Cal on Sunday in Tucson.
“Honestly, I don’t think it means much to me,” said Japreece Dean, who had 12 points on Friday. “I know it’s better for us in the Pac-12 and who we play, but I’m not too focused on where we are.”
UCLA was led by junior forward Michaela Onyenwere with 16 points. In her first game back after sitting out two games with an injury, redshirt junior guard Natalie Chou had 10 points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. Freshman guard Camryn Brown tied her career-high with eight points in 22 minutes, as the Bruins posted their first wire-to-wire win in Pac-12 play this season.
“Obviously starts have been a real struggle for us and so it was nice to have our best quarter be our first quarter,” Close said. “I was really pleased with how we got more high-percentage shots, we finished better, we let our offense create easier opportunities tonight. … (I’m) really proud of a lot of people who stepped up.”
UCLA played well defensively, holding Colorado to 23 points in the first half, though the teams combined for 36 turnovers. Colorado (16-12, 5-12) made more mistakes, unforced and otherwise, with 19 turnovers. The Bruins were sloppy as well with 17 turnovers but had control of the game throughout in bouncing back from Sunday’s 74-68 loss at Washington.
UCLA led 20-8 in the first quarter, as the Buffaloes had six turnovers and shot just 27.3 percent from the field, going scoreless for a stretch of nearly six minutes.
“We know that defense is our anchor,” Brown said. “When we lock in on defense and we’re super energetic and really focused on the defensive end, it really calms us down on the offensive end. It makes our shots a lot easier and we get to go with the flow.”
UCLA led 24-10 at one point but made just three field goals in the second quarter, and Colorado used nine second-chance points to cut the deficit to 31-23 by halftime.
“I didn’t like how we turned the ball over in the second quarter,” Close said. “But I really liked our response. After the first two in the third, we only turned it over six times the rest of the half. That’s much more characteristic of who we are. I do like the 18 assists. We haven’t had that in a while, and I’m confident we’re going to take care of the ball better.”
UCLA indeed opened the third quarter with back-to-back turnovers, allowing Colorado to get within six points. But an Onyenwere layup helped the Bruins find their energy, and a 9-0 run gave UCLA its biggest lead at 42-27 with 5:32 left in the third. Dean took a key charge early in that spurt and Charisma Osborne hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. Dean made a layup for the 15-point lead.
Whenever Colorado attempted to get back in the game, Brown was there with a response. In the final minute of the third quarter, she rebounded an Osborne miss and scored, then she scored the opening basket of the fourth quarter to keep the margin at 12.
“My teammates have always just given me that confidence in practice,” Brown said. “I just wanted to come out here and be the spark that my teammates needed wherever they needed me to be.”
Mya Hollingshed cut the margin to seven with a 3-pointer with 5:43 left, but Dean answered with another layup to make it 56-47. Neither team scored for more than two minutes, then the Bruins rattled off four in a row to go up 11 with 1:15 left and they closed it out from there.
Hollingshed had a game-high 22 points for Colorado, which has lost 11 straight against the Bruins.
UCLA closes its regular season on Sunday at 1 p.m. when it faces Utah. Before the game, the Bruins will recognize their two seniors, Dean and Ally Rosenblum.
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