The brass sound of the Bruin band echoed throughout the John Wooden Center on Monday night, transforming the Collins Court from an intramural playground to a hard court fit for the UCLA women’s basketball team.
UCLA opened its season with an 81-52 exhibition win over Vanguard as coach Cori Close made her official debut at the helm of the UCLA women’s basketball program.
Playing in a new gym so we are very excited,” said redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa, who led the team with 22 points and 16 rebounds. “New team, new coach, everything is brand new. We just wanted to come out with intensity, energy, communication and focus, and I think that is what we did.”
Freshmen guard Moriah Faulk and forward Kacy Swain also donned Bruin uniforms for the first time Monday but played like veterans, scoring a combined 31 points.
“I was very nervous in the beginning, but once I started I felt good,” said Faulk. “My teammates had my back and made me feel comfortable out there.”
If Faulk had any pre-game jitters, they definitely did not affect her outside shot, as the freshman went 3-6 in three-pointers.
“Her jumpers are automatic. You give her the ball and she will shoot it whether someone is there or not. That is good confidence,” Nyingifa said.
With senior forward Jasmine Dixon, last year’s top rebounder, out for the season and junior guard/forward Markel Walker sidelined after having thumb surgery, UCLA’s roster enters the season worn thin.
Whether the young players on the team will be able to fill the gaps left by injured upperclassmen is a question that remains to be answered, but the impressive performances of the freshmen against Vanguard is an encouraging sign for Close.
“Everybody is important these days … so to have those freshmen, it’s not optional,” she said. “We have to have them grow at a rate that most freshmen are not expected to grow.
“I have probably picked on them more than anyone else on our team, so it is great to see them step up. Moriah Faulk and Kacy Swain were definite bright spots for me as I watched this game.”
Led by its young shooters and Nyingifa, UCLA was clearly the more offensively effective team Monday night. But UCLA dominated the boards against Vanguard as well, taking advantage of their height and size.
“Our versatility is really hard to match up with,” Close said. “I thought our ability on the boards was a must. We are best when we can defend and create stops. Then we can attack and transition. We are hardest to match up there.”
With the preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament approaching, UCLA faces tough competition ahead. For Close, the exhibition game serves as a perfect opportunity to iron out the kinks before the regular season starts.
The most important thing Nyingifa took away from Monday’s game?
“We should never estimate our opponent,” she said. “I think we could have held them a little bit lower. “¦ Never keep your foot off the pedal.”