UCLA women falter at the finish in NCAA tournament loss to LSU


The cities change, the details vary.

The constant is the disappointment this time of year for UCLA.

The latest bout of March sadness played out in a somber locker room inside MVP Arena, the Bruins contemplating another opportunity lost.

One moment, they’re leading the defending national champions by three points with less than three minutes to play, everyone clapping on the bench, the possibilities endless.

The next moment, they’re faltering amid empty possessions compounded by an inability to get stops, their faces solemn, the season over.

That’s now six trips to this weekend of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament under coach Cori Close. One ended in the Elite Eight and five others in the Sweet 16, the latest stumble for the second-seeded Bruins coming Saturday afternoon during a 78-69 loss to third-seeded Louisiana State in a semifinal of the Albany 2 Regional.

UCLA guard Kiki Rice drives against LSU guard Flau'jae Johnson during the third quarter of their Sweet 16 game Saturday.

UCLA guard Kiki Rice drives against LSU guard Flau’jae Johnson during the third quarter of their Sweet 16 game Saturday.

(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Close didn’t cower from her latest inability to generate a breakthrough after her team held a 67-64 lead with 2½ minutes left after Gabriela Jaquez got the bounce on a floating jumper. The Bruins missed their final eight shots and two of four free throws while being outscored 14-2 the rest of the way.

“We gave up layups and free throws and we missed layups and free throws down the stretch,” said Close, “and ultimately I’m responsible.”

There were no easy answers in the UCLA locker room, where point guard Kiki Rice sat on a training table looking around blankly.

“It sucks,” Rice said moments earlier, “because I felt like we had a team this year that was for sure capable of winning it all and that didn’t happen.”

Across the locker room, Jaquez walked over to hug teary teammate Izzy Anstey, who had retired from basketball earlier this season.

“Definitely hard, very frustrating, I’m very pissed right now,” Jaquez said after scoring 14 points, matching the tally of teammates Londynn Jones and Lauren Betts. “But I think the best thing for me to do is to use this to fuel myself for next year.”

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Sloppy ballhandling and cold shooting were the biggest issues that led to another premature exit for UCLA (27-7) while helping LSU (31-5) advance to play top-seeded Iowa on Monday in a rematch of last season’s national championship game. The Bruins committed 19 turnovers and made seven of 32 three-pointers (21.9%), including only two of 17 in the first half when falling behind by seven points.

That deficit grew to nine before the Bruins rallied, back-to-back three-pointers from Jones pushing her team into a 45-44 lead. In her final college game, UCLA’s Charisma Osborne made another three-pointer to extend her team’s advantage to two points.

The Bruins had an opening when LSU star Angel Reese picked up her fourth foul with 8:16 left in the game and headed to the bench with her team down by three. Yet the Bruins could not extend their advantage over the next four minutes, leading by the same margin when Reese returned.

Reese appeared to have a verbal exchange with a Bruins assistant coach in the handshake line after the game, saying afterward that Close had told her good game and “it was another coach that was talking a little crazy.”

Close said no one on her staff had said anything inappropriate.

“We would never do that, and especially it would never come from one of my coaches,” Close said. “Maybe she heard something mistakenly, but I can tell you — and I’m not saying anything about Angel, I’m just saying what comes from my camp — absolutely not.”

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Reese and Flau’jae Johnson both logged double-doubles for the Tigers — Johnson finishing with 24 points and 12 rebounds to go with Reese’s 16 points and 11 rebounds.

Betts pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked four shots for the Bruins but repeatedly struggled to get entry passes that were often knocked away for turnovers by a team that faltered on basketball’s big stage.

“I think we are the better team,” Betts said, “and I thought that we just didn’t show up today.”

As she sat quietly in front of her locker afterward, Osborne was consoled by teammate Lina Sontag and a team staffer.

After a few solemn minutes, Osborne rose and walked out of the room to get medical treatment. Soothing this latest disappointment could take considerably more time.



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