'Together': AU prepares to face UCLA in first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon
Women’s basketball plays in LA
The Eagles finished their first (and last) practice in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion before their first-round battle chanting the team’s word of the season: “together.”
Together. It's seen in the way that each teammate seeks out and picks up a player after she slips and falls on the court.
It’s seen in the way the team travels, staying as a pack to keep their relationships tight, even without basketballs in their palms.
Earlier this season, freshman guard Indeya Sanders live-tweeted the team’s trip to Boston, mentioning their late pick-up, lemon crepes and thumb war competitions between teammates at the gate.
It’s seen in the way some teammates dorm together at AU. For instance, freshman forward Maddie Royale and Sanders are roommates. They’re together from the time they rise at dawn to their late-night, post-practice homework sessions before lights out.
The women’s basketball team flew into Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday evening. Their time in the Golden State hasn’t been all work and no fun, though. The team dressed in their Sunday Best and traveled to take photos in front of the Hollywood sign and atop celebrity stars on the Walk of Fame. They finished their day of sightseeing by dining at Il Cielo, an Italian eatery in Beverly Hills owned by head coach Megan Gebbia’s cousin.
Prep for this afternoon’s game
AU has been watching film on UCLA’s team, focusing on senior guard Jordin Canada and senior forward Monique Billings, senior guard Emily Kinneston said during AU’s pre-practice press conference Friday afternoon.
Canada and Billings play similarly to AU’s Kinneston and junior forward Cecily Carl. Both pairs lead their teams in rebounds (Carl and Billings more so). Both pairs pass the torch in deciding who will assist and who will shoot in each game. Both pairs’ combined point totals supersede any other pair of athletes on either team.
Billings talked about AU’s ability “to shoot at all positions” in UCLA’s pre-practice press conference.
“They have shooters, and they’re a motion team. We’re just going to plan on switching one through five and playing all positions,” she said.
Kinneston and Carl talked about their excitement to be in LA and in the NCAA Tournament more than they mentioned their nerves and worries.
Carl said that the team has been struggling with offensive rebounding throughout the entire season, but she thinks that the need to hone on in offensive rebounding more than ever while facing higher stakes is going to be “a lot of fun.”
Kinneston said that she continually tells herself that this is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” so she wants to drown out pre-game jitters in the realization that this could be her last chance to represent the Eagles on the court.
For Kinneston, though, this tournament is technically a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The senior is the only one on the Eagles' roster to have played in the 2015 tournament, which was the last time AU earned a spot the postseason.
UCLA to make third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance
UCLA’s women’s basketball team has appeared in the NCAA Tournament 14 times since 1982. The Bruins are making their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, after reaching the Sweet 16 in both 2016 and 2017. The team has three total Sweet Sixteen appearances and one Elite Eight appearance.
In 2017, the No. 4 seed Bruins defeated Boise State and Texas A&M in the opening two rounds before falling the No. 1 overall seed Connecticut 86-71. UCLA’s top seniors, Canada and Billings, scored 20 and 17 points respectively in their defeat against Connecticut.
The senior class for the Bruins, led by Billings and Canada, have amassed 94 wins in their four years in Los Angeles. Billings and Canada were also members of the 2014 UCLA team that won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), defeating defeating West Virginia 62-60 in the championship game. The WNIT is the NCAA’s second-tier postseason tournament, where teams who do not qualify or receive bids in the 64-team NCAA Tournament compete in a 32-team, single-elimination tournament.
Billings and Canada have paced the Bruins all season and helped UCLA ascend as high as ninth in the national rankings. UCLA fell in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship to Oregon, but earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament on the merit of their third place finish in the difficult Pac-12 Conference and 24-7 record. Canada was recognized as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Canada and Billings were both named to the All-Pac-12 Team and the All-Defensive Team, while freshman forward Michaela Onyenwere was named to the All-Freshman Team.