BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Imani Boyette had to maneuver around foul trouble and a gritty UCLA defense to play one of her best games of the season at one of the best times.
Boyette, a 6-foot-7-inch senior, scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds — her first double-double since Jan. 27 — to power the Longhorns to a 72-64 victory over the Bruins in a Sweet 16 matchup of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The comeback victory on Saturday before 8,898 fans at Webster Bank Arena set up a rematch of a 2015 NCAA women’s tournament game: Texas vs. Connecticut. That matchup will tip off here at 6 p.m. Monday.
Texas (31-4) trailed 54-48 after three quarters Saturday and appeared in danger of having its season come to an end. But a 10-0 Longhorns scoring run to open the fourth quarter — four points from Boyette, two each from Brooke McCarty, Ariel Atkins and Lashan Higgs — gave Texas a four-point edge that it would not give up.
With the victory, Texas reached for the first time since the 2002-03 squad played in the Final Four.
Boyette proved to be the game’s dominant player despite getting two quick fouls in the first quarter — she would finish with four — and playing just 24 minutes. She had one rebound at halftime, nine in the second half.
“They were whipping our butt in the first half with rebounds,” Boyette said. “Our coaches kept telling us about that … We got away from boxing out in the first half. And in the second half, we made sure everyone was boxing out and everyone took part in the rebounding game.”
UCLA coach Cori Close said UT’s “aggression” in the second half — particularly in the paint — fueled the Longhorns’ comeback. She noted that Texas out-rebounded her team by 11 boards after halftime.
“Even when we were getting stops on defense, we were having to take harder shots,” Close said. “Texas is a good defensive team. We know that coming in … They pushed us out a little farther than we wanted to (in the second half). Imani established her shot-blocking and altered shots in that fourth quarter. And we didn’t get any second-half opportunities.”
Texas recorded a 40-22 advantage in points in the paint. Boyette, Atkins and Lang each grabbed three offensive rebounds to help UT’s cause.
Close said Higgs might have made the most important play. After McCarty opened the fourth quarter with layup, Higgs stole the ensuing in-bounds pass and laid it in, cutting UCLA’s lead to 54-52 only 24 seconds into the period.
Rattled, UCLA called a timeout.
“That was a huge momentum shift,” Close said. “Texas showed maturity (in the fourth quarter).”
The Longhorns outscored the Bruins 24-10 in the final quarter.
Texas coach Karen Aston said several Longhorns played pivotal roles in the victory. That group included Higgs (four points), Brianna Taylor (three points, three rebounds, three steals) and Kelsey Lang (four points).
“We had so many players contribute in different ways, and that’s the epitome of who we are, a real team,” Aston said. “This was a team win.”
Atkins complemented Boyette with 16 points while Brooke McCarty added 15.
UCLA (26-9) was led by the tandem of guard Jordin Canada and center Monique Billings, who each scored 20 points.
UConn (35-0) warmed up for its Elite Eight matchup against Texas by destroying Mississippi State 98-38 Saturday in a Sweet 16 contest.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma was asked if anyone can challenge the Huskies — the three-time defending NCAA champions — when they are playing this well.
“Well, I mean, that’s what they said about Baylor when Louisville beat them when they had Britney Griner,” he answered.