The UCLA women's basketball team poured the foundation of its season in August in Australia.
The Bruins built a strong frame with nonconference matchups against top teams like Baylor and South Carolina, then tested it with the massive weight of a Pac-12 schedule. Now big, bad Connecticut, with its 109-game winning streak, is pounding and threatening to blow the doors off UCLA's season for good, but don't expect the Bruins to fold easily.
"The 109 that came before, it has nothing to do with what we're about to do for these 40 minutes," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "I think being mentally tough is under your control, being focused on the correct things is under your control. We don't have to let it be huge and we're not going to."
The fourth-seeded Bruins (25-8) head into Saturday's Sweet 16 game against No. 1 UConn (34-0) at 11 a.m. in Bridgeport, Conn. (ESPN), focused only on themselves. It's cliche, but it's also what's gotten them to this point.
UCLA heeds the advice of its sports psychologist: Talk to yourself, don't listen to yourself. Talk to yourself about what's important so you don't listen to others about what's not.
"We've been doing it all year long," guard Jordin Canada said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing, it's all about how we can get better and how we can grow. We're not really worried about what they're going to do. We're worried about what we're going to do."
What the Bruins hope to do is continue their momentum from their best stretch of basketball this season. UCLA has won seven of its past eight, including two dominant NCAA Tournament wins that sent them to Bridgeport. The second-round 32-point victory over Texas A&M was the largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game in program history.
UCLA is playing its best basketball in March because of an early February slip-up. An 84-75 setback against unranked Oregon on Feb. 10 ended up pushing the Bruins forward to the point where they are pursuing the school's first Elite Eight bid since 1999.
"I sometimes say until the pain of where you are is greater than the pain that it'll take to change, nothing changes," Close said. "And I think that moment, it was a painful loss."
The Ducks, who are still one of five Pac-12 teams alive in the Sweet 16 this weekend, hung 84 points on the Bruins, tied for the most allowed by UCLA this season. Instead of fracturing, the Bruins banded together by challenging each other. They owned their mistakes with the maturity required to take harsh criticism, Close said.
This is the first time UCLA has ever made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. A win would match the program's longest run in the NCAA Tournament.
Prior to the season, Close read "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance" by Angela Duckworth. Inspired by the book's message, she established grit as the team's main theme for the year. Players read the book, broke down the meaning of grit and began to embody the ideal while building to the biggest moments of the season.
"Our program is built on passion plays, defense and rebounding," senior guard Kari Korver said. "Passion plays are really those gritty plays: The ball's on the ground -- who's going to dive for it and risk their body to go get it? I think this team really does embody that now. We're going to do whatever it takes to win."
This article is written by Thuc Nhi Nguyen from Los Angeles Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.