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Bruins Take On South Dakota State in WNIT Semifinals

Mar 30, 2022
IImar'I Thomas (photo by Caren Nicdao)

UCLA (18-12) at South Dakota State (27-9)
Thursday, Mar. 31, 2022 – 7 p.m. CT / 5 p.m. PT
Brookings, S.D. (Frost Arena)
Broadcast: ESPN3
Radio Talent: Dave Marcus

UCLA and South Dakota State are set to play in the WNIT Semifinals on Thursday evening, a rematch for two programs that squared off early in the 2021-22 season. The Jackrabbits emerged victorious back in November 2021, picking up a 76-66 win over the Bruins at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla. SDSU enters the contest having won 19 of its last 20 games, including a 15-game winning streak ahead of the team's loss to South Dakota in the Summit League Tournament Championship game. Redshirt junior forward Myah Selland leads the Jackrabbits with 14.1 points per game, having scored in double figures in 11 of her last 13 games. SDSU leads the Summit league in scoring offense with 75.0 points per game and allows just 58.6 points per game on defense, second-fewest in the conference.

Behind a season-high 31 points from Charisma Osborne, UCLA defeated Oregon State, 74-66, in the quarterfinals of the WNIT. The Bruins will play the winner of Alabama-South Dakota State in next week's semifinal. After trailing by as many as 18 points in the second quarter, Oregon State chipped away at the lead and got within four points in the fourth, but UCLA stood strong down the stretch and hit clutch free throws, including 11 from Osborne in the quarter. She made 12 of 14 shots from the charity stripe on the afternoon. Osborne also pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds for her eighth-career double-double. The junior guard from Moreno Valley, Calif. registered team highs of four assists and two blocked shots, as well. Jaelynn Penn added 17 points for the Bruins (18-12). Angela Dugalic logged 12 points and seven rebounds in a reserve role.

IImar'I Thomas eclipsed the impressive 2,000-career-point milestone with an 18-point performance, but it wasn't enough as the Bruins took a 76-66 loss to South Dakota State on Nov. 27, 2021 at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla. Thomas led all scores and tied a season-high with seven rebounds. Charisma Osborne and Jaelynn Penn each added 15 points in the effort. 10 players scored for SDSU, led by 11 points from Tori Nelson and Lindsey Thueninck. The Jackrabbits knocked down 23 free throws to just 13 from the Bruins, with UCLA, ultimately, taking a 10-point defeat. This matchup was the first-ever game between the programs.

UCLA and South Dakota State share a head coaching connection. UCLA Head Coach Cori Close and South Dakota State Head Coach Aaron Johnston coached together for Team USA at the U19 World Cup this past summer in Debrecen, Hungary. Close was the head coach of the team and Johnston served as an assistant. The pair helped lead Team USA to a world title after defeating Australia, 70-52 in the title game. Close also served as an assistant on the U19 staff in 2019, helping lead the Americans to a gold medal.

UCLA won the WNIT in 2015 in its first and only tournament appearance. The Bruins finished the regular season with a 13-18 record but earned the Pac-12's automatic qualifying spot in the tournament. In the first round, UCLA defeated CSU Bakersfield, 70-54, at home and then beat San Diego on the road, 63–58. The Bruins hosted third round and quarterfinal games, taking a 74-60 victory over Northern Colorado and an 82-66 win over Saint Mary's. UCLA continued its winning ways in the semifinals, beating Michigan on the road, 69-65, to advance to the championship game in West Virginia. Freshman point guard Jordin Canada dominated in the championship game, scoring 31 points to lead the Bruins to a 62-60 victory. With the Bruins up by just one with under a minute to play, Canada scored on a layup at the 25-second mark and then sealed the win with a steal and two ensuing free throws with 19 seconds remaining.       
Along with UCLA coaches Cori Close, Shannon LeBeauf and Tony Newnan, graduate guard Jaelynn Penn also has a WNIT Championship to her credit, winning in 2018 as a freshman at Indiana. Penn started for the Hoosiers in the championship game, recording a double-double with 10 points and a team-high 10 rebounds in Indiana's 65-57 victory over Virginia Tech.            

• The Bruins have won seven of their last eight games, their best eight-game stretch of the season.
• This is the seventh consecutive year that UCLA has advanced to postseason play. After winning the WNIT in 2015, the Bruins went to four consecutive NCAA Sweet Sixteens from 2016-19, including the 2018 Elite Eight, and to the NCAA second round in 2021 (there was no postseason in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
• UCLA has two players ranked in the Top 5 in scoring in the Pac-12 (No. 3 Charisma Osborne - 16.6 and  No. 5 IImar'I Thomas - 15.5). No other school has more than one player in the Top 5.
• Osborne has recorded nine games with at least 20 points this season, including a 31-point outing against Oregon State (Mar. 27).
• Osborne has recorded multiple assists in 21-straight games.
• Thomas has led the Bruins in rebounding in eight of the last 14 games and has recorded four double-doubles across that stretch, including two in the WNIT - (13pts/12reb against UC Irvine; 18pts/10reb at Wyoming).
• Jaelynn Penn has made at least one three-pointer in each of her last six games, including a season-high four against Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament second round.
• Natalie Chou tied her career-high with five steals in the Wyoming game and followed up the performance with four steals against Oregon State. She has three five-steal games this season.
• Angela Dugalic recorded her first career double-double in the Pac-12 Tournament first round, grabbing career-highs in points (13) and rebounds (12) in the win over USC. Dugalic's point total matched her previous career-high, set last year against UCLA when she was a member of the Oregon Ducks.
• UCLA has held its opponents under 70 points in 12 of the last 14 games and is 17-4 this season when doing so. The Bruin defense has kept opponents under 65 points in regulation in each of the last seven games. UCLA has gone 6-1 during those games.
• UCLA's 93 field goal attempts against Wyoming were the most by a Bruin team since attempting 106 in a double overtime game at Cal on Dec. 21, 2015.

UCLA's 1-2 PUNCH -- Charisma Osborne and IImar'I Thomas
UCLA is the only Pac-12 team with a pair of players among the league's Top 5 scorers, with junior guard Charisma Osborne ranked third with 16.6 points per game and graduate transfer forward IImar'I Thomas fifth at 15.4 points per game. Osborne is a Region 5 finalist for the WBCA All-America award and was on the Late Season Top 20 Watch List for the John R. Wooden Award, the Midseason Watch List for the Naismith Trophy and the Top 10 Watch List for the Ann Meyers-Drysdale Award. She has scored in double figures in 24 of the 27 games she has played this season and has nine 20-point games to her credit this year, along with three double-doubles. In the Pac-12, she ranks third in scoring (16.6), third in free throw percentage (87.0%) and sixth in assists (100). Thomas has impressed in her first season with the Bruins after transferring from Cincinnati, compiling a team-best 26 double-digit scoring efforts, including a 32-point performance in UCLA's dominant victory over San Jose State (Dec. 5) and four double-doubles. She ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring (15.5), first in field goals made (194), fourth in field goal percentage (53.9%) and second in offensive rebounds (83).

Two players who started the calendar year on the injured list have returned to play solid minutes for the Bruins. Forward Angela Dugalic, a transfer from Oregon, made her first Bruin appearance on Feb. 11 at Washington State, playing 16 minutes and grabbing four rebounds. Dugalic scored her first points as a Bruin the following game at Washington, netting two baskets and snagging three rebounds in 14 minutes of action. She had a breakthrough game against USC in the Pac-12 Tournament, recording her first career double-double with career-best numbers of 13 points and 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes of play. In 12 games, Dugalic is averaging 16.6 minutes, 6.5 points, and 4.7 rebounds per game. Junior guard Camryn Brown returned on Jan. 30 at Oregon State after her ACL injury suffered at the end of 2020-21 and has played in 16 games, with six starts. Additionally, Jaelynn Penn returned on Feb. 13 from a hand injury that kept her out of seven games and has started the last 10 games. She had started the season's first 11 games prior to her injury.

Incoming freshman Kiki Rice won both the Naismith and Gatorade National High School Player of the Year awards in 2022. Rice led Sidwell Friends to a perfect 28-0 record this past season, putting up 15.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. The McDonald's All-American is the No. 2-ranked player and No. 1-ranked point guard in espnW's Class of 2022. She is a two-time gold medalist with USA Basketball and earned District of Columbia Player of the Year honors in both basketball and soccer. She averaged 18.8 points per game at the Nike Girls EYBL last summer.

The Bruins have signed ESPN's No. 1 recruiting class in the nation for the high school class of 2022. It's the second No. 1-ranked class for the Bruins, as the 2014 recruiting haul included Lajahna Dummer and Kelli Hayes, as well as future WNBA pros Jordin Canada and Monique Billings. UCLA is one of just four schools in the country (and the only Pac-12 school) since 2010 to sign multiple No. 1 classes. Kiki Rice, UCLA's first-ever Naismith Girls Player of the Year and its second-ever Gatorade National Player of the Year, is the highest-ranked recruit in UCLA WBB history. She and Gabriela Jaquez, the sister of UCLA Men's Basketball star Jaime Jaquez Jr., were both named to the McDonald's All-America team and selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic, along with Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year finalist Londynn Jones. The current class features: #2-ranked Kiki Rice (5-11 point guard), #19-ranked Gabriela Jaquez (6-0 forward), #22-ranked Londynn Jones (5-5 point guard), #49-ranked Christeen Iwuala (6-3 forward), and German standout Lina Sontag.

HISTORIC GAME RECAP -- UCLA vs. San José State (Dec. 5)
• The Bruins defeated the Spartans, 112-33. It was the second-most points the Bruins have scored in a game during Coach Close's 11-year tenure (129 vs. San José State on Nov. 10, 2017).
• UCLA held the Spartans scoreless in the second quarter.
• Natalie Chou (31 pts) and IImar'I Thomas (32 pts) each put up 30+ point performances. It was only the third time in Pac-12 history since at least 1999-00 that two players from the same team scored at least 30 points in a single game.
• The Bruins assisted on 31 of 43 made baskets, the most assists in a game by UCLA since at least 1999-00.

PROLIFIC CAREER - IImar'I Thomas at Cincinnati
Graduate forward IImar'I Thomas currently ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with 15.5 points per game and has put up two double-doubles during the WNIT - a 13-point/12-rebound effort against UC Irvine in the first round and an 18-point/10-rebound game at Wyoming in the third round. She has scored in double figures in 26 of her 30 games this season, including each of the last nine. Thomas transferred to UCLA this past offseason following a sensational four-year career with Cincinnati. She ranked third all-time in scoring there with 1,925 points and is the only player in program history to record 1,900+ points and 800+ rebounds. Thomas was the 2021 AAC Player of the Year after averaging 23.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest. The three-time first-team All-AAC selection and 2018 AAC Freshman of the Year scored in double figures 89 times as a Bearcat and recorded 37 games with at least 20 points.

2021 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Michaela Onyenwere
After a historic Bruin career that saw her graduate as the program's fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,888 points, Michaela Onyenwere became the first UCLA WBB alumna to earn the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award. She was also the first Bruin basketball player since Jamaal Wilkes in 1975 to be named Rookie of the Year. She started 29 of 32 games for New York and went on to lead all rookies in scoring with 8.6 points per game. She notched nine double-digit scoring performances, including a 29-point outing against the Atlanta Dream on May 29. Onyenwere was third among rookies with 2.9 rebounds per contest and secured a career-high 10 boards against the Minnesota Lynx on Aug. 31. New York earned the eighth seed in WNBA Playoffs and fell in a heartbreaking 83-82 loss to the Phoenix Mercury. It was the first playoff appearance for New York since 2017.

UCLA maintained a strong presence in the WNBA this past season, as the Bruins had representation on the court, the sideline, and the front office across various organizations.
• Michaela Onyenwere earned Rookie of the Year honors with the New York Liberty, becoming the first UCLA Women's Basketball alumna to earn the honor. She averaged 8.6 ppg and won each of the league's four Rookie of the Month awards.
• Jordin Canada ('18) finished her fourth season with the Seattle Storm, putting up 5.8 points and 3.0 assists per game. Canada also boasts an apparel deal with Jumpman, as does UCLA Women's Basketball.
• Noelle Quinn ('07) was named Head Coach of the Seattle Storm during the 2021 season and guided the team to the WNBA playoffs.
• Monique Billings ('18) finished her fourth season in the WNBA with the Atlanta Dream. Billings averaged 8.1 points per game and grabbed 6.5 rebounds per contest.
• Kennedy Burke ('19) was traded to the Seattle Storm during the 2021 season and was reunited with former UCLA teammate, Jordin Canada. Burke averaged 2.9 points per game last season.
• Kari Korver ('17) finished her second season as Director of Operations for the Los Angeles Sparks.

UCLA alumnae have a strong presence playing professionally overseas. Here is a rundown of the program's current professionals and the teams they played for this past season:
• Kennedy Burke ('19), Rebekah Gardner ('12), Michaela Onyenwere ('21) -- Spar Girona -- Spain
• Monique Billings ('18) -- JCU Townsville -- Australia
• Jordin Canada ('18) -- Uni Gyor Mely-Ut -- Hungary
• Nirra Fields ('16) -- Izmit -- Turkey
• Ally Rosenblum ('20) -- A.S. Ramat Hasharon -- Israel
• Atonye Nyingifa ('14) -- Clarinos -- Spain