The story of ancient Greek warrior Achilles is well-known. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, dips newborn Achilles into the river Styx, attempting to make him invulnerable. She is nearly successful; Achilles becomes invulnerable everywhere but the point at which his mother held him ““ his heel.
An Achilles’ heel would come to symbolize a point of weakness. For the UCLA women’s basketball team, it is an unfortunate coincidence that the weakness for this year’s team is directly tied to another Achilles’ heel – specifically, senior forward Jasmine Dixon’s ruptured right Achilles tendon.
The loss of Dixon for the year, coupled with junior forward Markel Walker’s continued absence because of a thumb injury, leaves the Bruins with a distinct lack of depth to start the season, meaning UCLA will be in danger of exhausting themselves. Certainly, that will be an element of the game UCLA will look to mitigate and opponents will seek to exploit.
“It is a tough spot. Of course, we’d love to have Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker, but the reality is we don’t,” coach Cori Close said. “It’s the cards we were dealt. … We know we have to be the No. 1 conditioned team in the Pac-12, no matter what.”
To focus exclusively on the absences of Walker and Dixon, however, would be an insulting disservice to the other members of this team, who, like first-year head coach Close, are not ready to give up on the season. Despite losing two big pieces from last year’s tournament squad, this remains a talented roster with aspirations of returning to the dance.
“It sucks that we have a few players out,” redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa said. “But this is an opportunity for not only me to step up and raise the level of my game, but for my teammates to step up, too. I feel like this year will elevate our game, because we have our goals that we have to live up to, and we will.”
As Nyingifa mentioned, when someone goes down, an opportunity arises for someone to fill the gap. Nyingifa is being counted on to do just that. Standing in the breach alongside her will be senior guard Rebekah Gardner; together, the two are the team captains and the focal points of the team’s offense.
The bright side of having an Achilles’ heel is that it marks one as a fearsome warrior. The loss of key players notwithstanding, Close’s goal remains the same ““ to forge this team into the best possible unit, and to pull the best possible performance out of her players.
The way it happens will just be a bit different.
“We have to be stronger as a unit than we are individually,” Close said. “On paper, we are not a top-20 team in the country. Collectively, linked together, communicating ““ now we are greater than our individual parts.”
That sounds a bit cliche coming from a coach. The cliche, Close argues, is necessary for this team.
“If we play on an island, we don’t win,” she said. “If we play together, we can compete with any team in the country.”
To do that, the team will lean heavily on the aforementioned captains Gardner and Nyingifa. Nyingifa is stepping into a new role, but Gardner is simply expanding hers. The early results have been positive, as Nyingifa posted back-to-back double-doubles over the weekend, while Gardner bested her career marks in points and rebounds on Sunday afternoon.
More than numbers, however, those two players will need to provide the leadership group. When a senior goes down, somebody has to fill the leadership void. This is what Gardner highlighted as the biggest aspect of her expanded role.
“Last year, it wasn’t my role to say something,” Gardner said. “This year, I just try to encourage my teammates to do the right thing, and to go above and beyond what we’re expected to do.”
What is expected of this team is not the same as what they themselves expect to do. Outsiders expect little from a team featuring a new coach and having lost two major pieces; those on the team, however, haven’t lowered their sights an inch.
“We want to be the first team to win the Pac-12, and (we want) to reach the Final Four,” Gardner said.
Lofty goals, indeed. If the Bruins can overcome their Achilles’ heel, however, they might be mighty warriors yet.