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It was never guaranteed that this day would come for UCLA. Just a year ago, there was no Selection Monday after the Bruins returned from the Pac-12 tournament.
That’s what made Monday’s announcement that the Bruins are a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament so special.
“Last year, we had come back from Pac-12s, we had a great practice and heard that our whole season had been canceled, just taken away in a couple of hours,” senior Natalie Chou said. “We’re just reminding ourselves that every single day is a blessing. It’s a gift to be able to play the sport that we love and we just want to be able to give our 100% each day.”
UCLA (16-5) will face No. 14 Wyoming in the first round of the Hemisfair Region on March 22 at 7 p.m. PDT. The four regions of the NCAA tournament are named after San Antonio attractions, honoring the city that will host the event during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bruins, who were ranked ninth in Monday’s Associated Press poll, are trying to advance to their fifth straight NCAA regional semifinal. UCLA took it a step further in 2018 with an Elite Eight berth, but the program has never been to the Final Four.
To do that this year, the Bruins (16-5) will have to overcome a tough region that includes No. 1 seed and SEC tournament champion South Carolina, which won the SEC tournament, and No. 2 seed Maryland, the top scoring team in the nation, averaging 91.3 points per game.
“This is what we’ve been working towards,” said Chou, who averages 10.3 points per game. “All the hard things and all the fun things will be worth it in the tournament.”
UCLA hopes to make a postseason run with a short roster. Only eight scholarship players have been available for most of the season because of injuries, opt-out outs and a depleted freshman class.
Without much depth, UCLA relies on star senior Michaela Onyenwere, who leads the Bruins with 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and sophomore Charisma Osborne (17.3 points, 3.9 assists). Onyenwere scored 30 points in the Pac-12 championship game that UCLA lost to Stanford.
Wyoming (14-9) won the Mountain West tournament with a 59-56 win over Fresno State in the final and will be making its second NCAA tournament appearance in program history. Guard Quinn Weidemann led the Cowgirls with 14 points in the championship game. McKinley Bradshaw, who averages a team-high 11.7 points off the bench, had 13 points.
The winner between UCLA and Wyoming will advance to face No. 6 seed Texas or No. 11 Bradley in the second round.
With matching regular-season and conference tournament titles, Stanford (25-2) was the No. 1 overall seed and the top team in the Alamo Region. North Carolina State (20-2) and Connecticut (24-1) claimed the other No. 1 seeds. UConn, which was No. 1 in Monday’s AP Poll, will have to start the tournament without head coach Geno Auriemma, who tested positive for the coronavirus and won’t be able to coach until he clears quarantine.
The field is the most wide open as UCLA coach Cori Close can remember. There are no undefeated teams in the bracket. It seems fitting that the season played through unprecedented circumstances is also the one that produced the most parity. The winner will have to fight through even more hurdles as the teams enter a bubble in San Antonio.
UCLA, which made it through the season without a coronavirus pause, reviewed the tournament's protocols this week and marveled at the detail. Players and coaches aren’t allowed to leave their hotel floor without an escort. Meals are brought to the appropriate hotel floor on a table and only one person per team can pick them up to distribute to players. Everyone has to wear contact tracing bracelets.
The Bruins have been wearing similar devices throughout the season, but not at all times, which will be required in San Antonio. They hope their familiarity with some strict guidelines can help them handle the twists of the tournament.
“The stronger mentality teams are going to be the ones that are going to be able to thrive in the environment,” Close said. “I’m really thankful that we have been as strict as we have because I think it’ll be less of an adjustment for us.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.