By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
The Sacramento State women’s basketball team is on its way to face the No. 4-seeded UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 18, in the first round of 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships.
The 13th-seed Hornets (25-7) make their first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament championships. Tipoff is at 8:30 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.
The Hornets are feeling the Madness of March.
“We’re ready … we’re ready to be the underdogs,” said senior guard Kahlaijah Dean. “We’re blessed by this opportunity. We’re going to take it.”
Big Sky regular season and tournament champions for the first time in school history, the Hornets learned their destination by viewing a watch party on a big-screen television March 12 at the campus’ athletics center with Big Sky Co-Coach of the Year Mark Campbell.
Sacramento State is part of the special class of 2022-23 collegiate programs. The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee awarded No. 1 seeds to South Carolina (32-0), Indiana (27-3), Virginia Tech (27-4) and Stanford (28-5).
The 2023 championship is the second to feature 68 teams. First Four games will be played March 15-16. First- and second-round games will be played March 17-20, on the campuses of the top 16 seeds.
The Hornets and Bruins are joined in a four-team pod by No. 5-seeded and Big 12 regular-season champion Oklahoma (25-6) and 12th-seeded and West Coast Conference tournament champion Portland (23-8). The winners Saturday meet on Monday, March 20.
“It’s a business trip,” Campbell said of the Hornets’ opportunity to play in the national tournament. “That is the tricky part of March Madness. It’s so fun, thrilling and exciting that you gotta block out all those distractions and stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting prepared for a 40-minute battle with UCLA.”
The Women’s Final Four will be played Friday, March 31, and Sunday, April 2, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Thirty-two conferences were granted automatic bids and the remaining 36 teams were selected at-large.
After posting a 13-5 conference record, the Hornets have won nine in a row. They are 9-5 on the road and have won all five of their games at neutral sites. Sac State is led by senior guard Dean and junior post Isnelle Natabou.
Dean was named the Big Sky Most Valuable Player, the conference’s Newcomer of the Year, and the MVP of the conference tournament after averaging 21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists, shooting 45% from the field and 39% from three-point range.
Natabou, a first-team All-Big Sky selection and all-tournament team honoree, ranks among the nation’s top shooters with a 64% field-goal percentage, averaging 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds.
The Bruins return to March Madness after missing the 2022 tournament. UCLA accepted a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and reached the semifinals. The Bruins have earned bids in six of the last seven NCAA tournaments and have made four Sweet 16 appearances under head coach Cori Close.
Three Bruins – Charisma Osborne, Emily Bessoir and Kiki Rice – earned All-Pac-12 Tournament honors with their performances in Las Vegas during UCLA’s four-game run to the championship. Osborne was named all-conference in the regular season and Rice joined Londynn Jones as UCLA’s members of the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.
“Everybody knows UCLA. They are a great team,” Dean said. “We are going to do our best to play our game.”