SEATTLE -- Washington is better than its sub-par record.
No. 8 UCLA knew this coming into the Sunday’s road game and was prepared because every contest is so precious as the Bruins battle for seeding in the tight Pac-12 Conference race and the NCAA Tournament.
Yet they let the Huskies get away with a gritty, emotional 74-68 win in a game that began with a celebration of inspirational Washington player GiGi Garcia and ended with a Huskies celebration of an upset.
“The great news is that it prepares you so well for the NCAA Tournament because there are no nights off and you see every style of play” in the Pac-12, UCLA coach Cori Close said. “So I have a lot of confidence our team is going to respond. This one hurts. More than that, it hurts that we haven’t been playing very well.”
The Bruins started the season 16-0 but have lost two of their last four and needed overtime to secure those two wins. They had a couple of chances to pull out a tough road victory on Sunday, but let Amber Melgoza and the Huskies (13-14, 5-11) get away in the final 2 minutes for the win.
Melgoza scored 20 points with five assists. The senior point guard drove the lane again and again, getting battered by UCLA’s post players with little help from the referees until the end when she was knocked to the floor on a drive and answered with two free throws with 37 seconds left. She added two more with 3.4 seconds left to seal the victory.
“She’s a warrior,” Washington coach Jodie Wynn said. “That kid, man, plows through contact. You could call a hand-check on her every time she touches the ball, and for some reason they don’t. So she’s just a gutty young lady that is going to find a way to get something done.”
Melgoza overcame repeated frustration at the rough play against her under the basket. Her relentlessness opened up the 3-pointer for the Huskies in the second half and Rita Pleskevich made them pay, going 3 for 3 from deep and 6 for 6 overall, for 15 points.
Washington built an 11-point lead in the first half, but UCLA whittled it down to 30-26 at halftime by holding the Huskies without a field goal for the final 5:28. Washington extended the lead again with a 10-0 run early in the third quarter that included back-to-back Pleskevich 3s to make it 41-32.
UCLA cut it to 67-63 on four straight free throws in the final 2 minutes, including two on a technical against Wynn.
Charisma Osborne had 23 for the Bruins, giving her 77 points in the last three games.
“Give a lot of credit to them,” Close said. “But give a lot of credit to our team and who we are. The reason they were so excited and acted like they won a national championship after the game is we have a really good team. But we’re not playing as well as we need to right now.”
In a touching moment, Washington’s Garcia made the first appearance of her career in Sunday’s game.
Garcia took the tip for Washington, then immediately checked out of the game before returning to make the final inbounds pass. The forward from Sacramento, California, has suffered five serious knee injuries in her career, tearing her ACL twice in high school and three times at Washington. She underwent four surgeries, but after her last injury decided not to pursue a fifth.
Coaches kept her appearance a secret until just before the game, when Garcia took off her sweats to reveal a uniform for the first time in her four-year career.
“She’s been an inspiration to every single one of us since we all stepped on this campus with her,” Wynn said. “She’s a role model. She’s the toughest kid I think I’ve ever been around. For her to be able to take the court on her senior night, to me it’s an ounce of something we can give her for what she’s given us. She’s a strong leader, she’s a strong woman and she’s going to be able to fight through any kind of adversity in life because of what she went through here for four years.”
UCLA: The Bruins return to Los Angeles for the final homestand of the season, beginning with Colorado on Friday.
Washington: The Huskies hit the road for two games to finish the season, starting with No. 11 Oregon State on Friday.
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