COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Stetson coach Lynn Bria appreciated the change of subject.
With her players and her fighting back tears in the wake of a 66-49 loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday, a reporter apologized for going off topic with a question.
“Please do, so I don’t sit up here and cry the whole time,” Bria said with a laugh.
Even though an 11-0 deficit just over 5 minutes into the game put the Hatters in a hole from which they could never recover, that didn’t mean the loss was any less heartbreaking.
Nirra Fields led third-seeded UCLA’s balanced attack with 13 points and the Bruins never we stopped after their fast start. Jasmine Dixon added 10 points and 10 rebounds and Atonye Nyingifa had 10 points and eight rebounds for the spread-the-wealth Bruins (26-7), who advance to meet Oklahoma (23-10) in Monday night’s second round.
Victoria McGowan had 14 points and a career-high 14 rebounds for Stetson (24-9), with Sasha Sims adding 13 points.
Nyingifa scored five quick points in the 11-0 burst while the Hatters were missing their first nine shots from the field, including going 0 for 5 from behind the arc.
They didn’t get on the board until Cherisse Burris hit a layup at the 14:44 mark.
“The first probably 10 minutes killed us,” Bria said. “Overall, the second half we played a lot better, a lot tougher. The difference was field-goal percentage. We had some shots but we didn’t put them in.”
Both McGowan and fellow senior Shanasa Sanders said the players were couldn’t buy a bucket.
“It wasn’t nerves,” Sanders said. “We weren’t hitting shots. We kept taking them but we weren’t knocking them down.”
Substituting liberally, UCLA coach Cori Close had eight players score in the first nine minutes while the Bruins built a 23-7 lead.
They were on top 36-20 at the break, with Stetson struggling to keep up. The Hatters hit just 9 of 34 shots (27 percent) in the first 20 minutes, including 1 of 14 3-pointers.
Down as many as 24, the Hatters drew to 16 points on Sims’ bucket with 5:37 left, but the Bruins came right back with two scores to push the lead back to 20 a minute later. McGowan’s 3 with 1:01 left got them within 15.
Stetson, which had won its last five games, was the tournament champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Hatters set a school record for wins and played in their third NCAA tournament. In each of the first two trips, they went as a 16 seed and had to play a powerhouse in something less than a neutral environment. They lost to top-seeded LSU 70-36 in 2005 and to No. 1-seeded Tennessee 99-34 two years ago.
After the game, a lot of tears were shed by the Hatters.
“Coming as a transfer and not having a good experience at one school, this has been an unbelievable experience for me,” McGowan said.
Bria said it was hard to put a value on what the NCAA trip might mean to the 3,961-student school in DeLand, Fla.
“It does wonders for our program,” she said. “To be back on a national stage and to play against some of the best players in the country does a lot for our program.
“Our university is outstanding. It’s a great place but not a lot of people have heard of it — but more people are hearing about us now.”