On Thursday night, the UCLA women’s basketball team walked out of the Jon M. Huntsman Center, home of the Utah Utes, with a win.
Last night, the story was as simple as that. The Bruins (9-10, 4-4 Pac-12) were out-rebounded, less efficient in shooting and, apart from a five-minute stretch to end the game, did not play good defense. They were simply tougher than the Utes (9-10, 2-6).
“Our team just fought,” senior guard Rebekah Gardner said after the game. “The way we fought, we weren’t leaving with anything less than a win. And that’s what it ended up being. We really fought, that’s just the word of the day.”
The difference was a display of mental fortitude at the end of the game, when, despite playing a short bench, the Bruins turned to the full-court press.
The gamble, which might have led to exhaustion and sloppy play, instead resulted in a number of forced turnovers that directly led to the last lead change of the game, leaving the Bruins on top.
“There’s only one way that we’re going to start winning games, and that’s with courage,” coach Cori Close said. “The whole second half, every time out, we talked about that. It’s really fun to watch that pay off for them, for them to dig in and find gears that maybe they didn’t even think they had.”
One of the big contributors of the night was junior Mariah Williams, a 5-foot-4-inch guard known more for her defensive and off-ball contributions than for her scoring.
On Thursday, however, Williams shot with confidence and shot well, netting 21 points for UCLA.
“It’s the same thing I’ve been seeing all season. A lot of players have been sagging off,” Williams said.
“I’ve done my best to play my role, which is to find our key shooters … but tonight I just went for it, to try and help my team out the best I could, and they just happened to fall for me.”
Along with Williams’ big night, the Bruins got big nights out of the usual suspects: Gardner posted 15 points and junior guard Markel Walker scored 14 points to go with 10 rebounds.
After Thursday’s gritty, tiring win, the challenge will be to string back-to-back wins for the first time in the Pac-12 season. UCLA travels to Colorado, another new, unknown conference foe.
Colorado, of course, will test the Bruins’ toughness. The Buffaloes proved their mettle Thursday night, besting USC and pushing their record to 15-4, 4-4.
“They play very solid player-to-player defense, they really control the tempo of the game, they’ve got a really good swing guard that they rely upon. … We’re going to have our hands full, trying to match up with them,” Close said. “It comes back down to our hearts and how badly we want it.”
Regardless of the outcome of the game, which will take place on Sunday, the matchup in Colorado will be a special one ““ a homecoming of sorts for both assistant coach Jenny Huth, a former standout player for the Buffaloes, and Mariah Williams.
“The last time I played at CU was the Colorado state championship, with my high school,” Williams said. “To relive that memory will be fun, and obviously I have tons of family and friends, my old coaching staff, coming to the game. The whole trip will be a fun one, and hopefully we can get the “˜W.’”