Local basketball fans that are lamenting the lack of a Los Angeles team to cheer on during March Madness should take a closer look at the NCAA Tournament bracket – the women’s bracket.
The No. 22 UCLA women’s basketball team is the 8th seed in the Kansas City Region and will take on ninth seed North Carolina State today at 8:30 p.m. CT/6:30 PT at the Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minn. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m excited about where we’re at,” said UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell in a videotaped interview on uclabruins.com. “I’m excited that we lived to see another day of basketball. But, most importantly, I’m excited for this team and their potential in NCAA play.”
UCLA (24-8) received an at-large selection into the tournament after it finished second in the Pac-10 standings. The Bruins’ 15-3 conference record ties the school’s best record ever in the Pac-10, that of the 1998-99 Bruins team that took a share of first place and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA was also runner-up to No.2 Stanford in the conference tournament, losing 70-46 on March 14. The loss snapped a season-long 10-game win streak for the Bruins.
This is UCLA’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and its10th overall. The Bruins all-time record in the tournament is 8-9.
None of the Bruins’ current players have been to the Big Dance before this, but their second year coach does know a few things.
Caldwell, Pac-10 Coach of the Year, has three NCAA championship rings. She was a member of Tennessee’s 1991 championship team and an assistant coach for the 2007and 2008 championship teams.
Caldwell also knows something about NC State head coach Kellie Harper, who also has three championship rings – all earned as a player for Tennessee (1996, 1997, 1998). Caldwell was a graduate assistant at Tennessee and coached Harper (then Kellie Jolly) during Harper’s senior season.
Speaking in a pre-tournament press conference in Minneapolis, Minn. on Saturday, Caldwell said that she is happy for Harper and her program.
“It’s March and she is going to get her team fired up to play us and we are going to do the same,” Caldwell said.” But when I first saw her here this morning, it was a huge hug and just (being) happy to see a former player, especially one that I had the opportunity to spend a year coaching.”
NC State (20-13) tied for fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was runner-up to Duke in the conference tournament.
The Wolfpack is making its 21st appearance in the tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 round in 2007. The current players have limited experience in the tournament, with four seniors having played a total of 18 minutes in 2007, with Sharnise Beal the only player to score, with five points over three games.
The two teams have met just 6 times, with NC State leading the series 5-1. The last time UCLA played NC State was on Nov. 25, 1994 and the Bruins lost 58-55 at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins have two All-Pac-10 First Team members in sophomore forward Jasmine Dixon and junior guard Doreena Campbell. Dixon is the Bruins’ top scorer and rebounder, averaging 15.3 points and 8 rebounds per game, while Campbell averages 9.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Markel Walker, who received an All-Pac-10 honorable mention averages 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Junior guard Darxia Morris is another probable starter and she has scored in double digits in 15 games this season. Morris averages 8.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Senior guard Erica Tukiainen usually completes the starting five, but Caldwell started sophomore Rebekah Gardner in the last game. Tukiainen shoots 42 percent beyond the arc and is sixth on the Bruins’ all-time 3-point shooting list, while Gardner is the team leader in blocked shots. Tukiainen averages 7.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game and Gardner averages 6.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
NC State’s probable starters include All-ACC First Team and Wolfpack senior guard Nikitta Gartrell and sophomore forward Bonae Holston, who received All-ACC honorable mention honors. Gartrell averages 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and Holston leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Marissa Kastanek is the ACC Freshman of the Year and averages 10.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Redshirt junior guard Amber White averages 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and senior forward Lucy Ellison averages 4.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Caldwell said that to beat NC State, the Bruins will need to limit turnovers, control the boards and the tempo of the game.
“We match up very well as far as size and athleticism, so it is going to be interesting to see what team goes out and executes their game plan,” Caldwell said.” Ours is going to rely heavily on our defensive play and board play.”
Today’s game will be televised on ESPN2. The winner of the game will advance to play the winner of today’s game between No. 1 seed Nebraska (30-1) and No. 16 seed Northern Iowa (17-15). The next game will be on March 23 (Tuesday) 8:30 p.m. CT/6:30 PT.