When a team’s traditional rivalry game rolls around, typically the same standard story lines get trotted out year after year: it’s going to be a tough, physical game; we really want to win this one because it’s our rival; these teams have bad blood between them.
The UCLA Bruins women’s basketball team, however, sits at 7-8, 2-2 in Pac-12 play, having gone 2-5 in the month of December.
Additionally, the Bruins have suffered a crucial injury in losing redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa for the season.
So, when the USC Trojans (8-6, 3-1 Pac-12) come to UCLA on Saturday, the Bruins will only be interested in one storyline ““ UCLA improving its play on the court.
“It really, for us, is just another opportunity for us to get better as a team,” coach Cori Close said.
“The fact of the matter is, when you lose that many games in December, you have to get better. If we miss a game to get better, we’re putting ourselves in too deep a hole to claw out of.”
Injuries have played a big role in the fortunes of this team, both in eliminating depth and disrupting team chemistry. It would hardly be fair to hold a team to the same expectations held when they had their full complement of players.
Still, a season is judged by wins and losses, and you don’t get an asterisk for hitting a cold streak or being the victim of bad luck. The challenge for UCLA is to accept that and continue pushing forward.
“We’re just trying to stay positive, trying to stick together and stay strong,” junior forward Markel Walker said.
“We just need to focus on what we do have, and we know we have eight players right now.”
As positive as the team remains, it cannot be ignored that this squad is suddenly very shallow.
They simply do not have many bodies left to fill out the rotation.
In the coming weekends of conference play, opponents will certainly look to exploit that and to challenge the toughness of the Bruins.
That is something Close sees as a positive. “There’s only one way to develop toughness and confidence, and that’s to conquer hard things,” Close said.
“There are no substitutes for that, and you can’t wish it in to place. … I can’t give my team confidence, they have to earn that.”
This weekend’s game certainly qualifies as a “hard thing.” The Trojans are currently in second place in the Pac-12 and bring a talented crew to UCLA, led by their guards and their ability to push the pace. The more the Bruins have to run, the tougher it will be on their depth.
Despite all the excuses, however, this team is refusing to allow any self-pity. The leaders of this team aren’t focusing on what this team doesn’t have, but rather on what they do have and what they need to do.
“We know (USC) is in second place right now. … We definitely want to get this win so we can get that second place spot, and even be a contender for that first place spot when we play Stanford again,” senior guard Rebekah Gardner said.
Even though UCLA’s focus is firmly on improving its own play, this will still be a rivalry game, and one of the better rivalries around. It can’t help but be a factor in this game, and Close understands that.
“We want to represent UCLA,” Close said.
“And when you want to represent UCLA, you have to perform well against USC. That’s a compliment to USC … and we’ll compete accordingly.”