After starting the season unranked, UCLA women’s basketball has established itself as a top 20 team, thanks in large part to the dominant play of senior forward Alyssia Brewer and senior guard/forward Markel Walker.
But as the Bruins begin conference play, a new name is beginning to appear near the top of the box score more regularly.
In her past three games, redshirt junior forward Atonye Nyingifa averaged 16 points and over seven rebounds, adding another weapon for coach Cori Close.
“Atonye has an identity. She knows what she can do and what she can’t do, and she plays to her strength really well. So as a coach, when you know someone has a great identity in who they are, you can really plan around them,” Close said.
Nyingifa attributes her improvements to game situations and extra practice.
“I think it’s my teammates just sharing the ball, moving the ball well, giving me the ball, and I think my coaches have also challenged me to work a little bit harder on my post skills and getting open,” Nyingifa said.
Two of the three games in Nyingifa’s recent stretch of strong play came on the road, where the Bruins have made themselves at home.
UCLA (11-2, 2-0 Pac-12) has yet to lose a road game, of which they have played seven, and has pulled off big wins away from home, including an upset of Oklahoma, an overtime win over St. John’s and two close wins against Pac-12 opponents.
“If I had to pick one thing, I guess it would just be a sense of urgency and understanding in knowing how big these games are,” senior guard Mariah Williams said.
“I think we just kind of developed a sense of (becoming) road warriors. We’re kind of becoming that, in that we haven’t lost on the road and we understand that we can get big wins on the road.”
Continuing to win on the road will be important for No. 14 UCLA as the team continues through conference play. The Pac-12 features two other ranked teams, Stanford and Cal, who are both in the top 10.
But the Bruins are less concerned about the level of competition and more about the intensity of other teams’ play.
“I don’t know if it’s a different level of skill yet, because we’ve played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country,” Close said. “I think there’s just more on the line.”
With so many strong conference teams, each game takes on more importance for the Bruins if they hope to win the conference.
“I think there’s a sense of pride in these games and I think that automatically brings a heightened sense of competitiveness and just knowing how crucial these games are now,” Williams said.
“Because moving forward obviously, however you did in the beginning this is a new season for any team in the Pac-12 and any other conference, so it’s definitely much more competitive.”
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