Stetson-UCLA Preview

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- - UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 behind two of the nation's powerhouse programs, but the Bruins have quite a bit going for themselves.

The highest seed in program history certainly qualifies.

Third-seeded UCLA begins what it hopes will be a deep run in coach Cori Close's first NCAA tournament in Westwood when it faces No. 14 seed Stetson on Saturday in Columbus' St. John Arena.

The Bruins (25-7) suffered six of their defeats against top-seven teams in the country, five of which came against conference rivals Stanford and California. But UCLA beat the Golden Bears in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals before coming up short 51-49 against the Cardinal in the final, and those contests against teams that earned top-two seeds have Close's club riding high.

"It's almost like a new beginning," said forward Atonye Nyingifa, the Bruins' leading scorer at 11.4 points per game. "We have another chance, it's one-and-done, and playing against any opponent we don't know gives us the advantage of surprise."

This is tied for the highest seed UCLA has received in the tournament, and Close - in her first tournament with the Bruins after making 15 straight at Florida State and Cal-Santa Barbara - never gets tired of watching her teams play in March.

"I've been doing this 20 years and it never gets old to see their faces when their name goes up on the screen," Close said. (When game time comes) it's about your mindset and your preparation, and we'll stay focused on that."

She'll want to make sure her team is more focused than it was in 2011, the year before she arrived from Tallahassee. The Bruins were also a third seed in that tournament but were stunned by 11th-seeded Gonzaga in the second round.

Close thinks the strength of the Pac-12 and variety of opposition UCLA faced can only help this time.

"The varied styles we had to play is really great preparation for the NCAA tournament," Close said. "We played zone, we played player-to-player, we played pressure, we played off, and I think having to really focus in with a short amount of prep puts you in a good position to do well in the tournament."

Stetson (24-8) finished second in the Atlantic Sun regular season before rolling through the conference tournament and stunning Florida Gulf Coast - previously unbeaten in the league - for the title and its second NCAA bid in three seasons.

The last one didn't go so well, as the Hatters were bounced by top-seeded Tennessee 99-34 in the 2011 first round.

"The pressure's on them," coach Lynn Bria said of the Bruins. "They're supposed to win this game, according to the seed."

Should UCLA advance, a date with sixth-seeded Oklahoma - which faces MAC champion Central Michigan - might await on Monday. The Bruins beat the then-No. 11 Sooners 86-80 on the road on Nov. 14, and Oklahoma is looking forward to a chance for revenge.

"It would really be cool to get a rematch with them," Sooners point guard Morgan Hook said.

UCLA, for its part, says it's not looking past Stetson - particularly considering it suffered a stunning 77-72 loss to Cal State Northridge back on Dec. 20 when the Bruins were ranked No. 12 in the nation.

"My highlight of the season is when we lost that game," senior wing Markel Walker said. "It was an upset. I'm always going to dwell on it because we learned that we can't take anyone for granted."