In nearly every game, junior guard Thea Lemberger launches herself to the floor, fighting for a loose ball, struggling to earn an extra possession for her team, or hustling to keep a ball in play.
“I’m always willing to do whatever,” Lemberger said. “Those hustle plays, I think the team feeds off that energy. Anything to get another possession for our team, so (I’ll do) whatever there is to do on defense to get stops.”
These hustle plays, which coach Cori Close calls “passion plays,” are one of the foundations the Bruins are built upon.
“The core of who we are is our ‘passion plays.’ It’s doing the nonstatistical things that lead to productivity and teamwork,” Close said. “It makes all the difference in how we play and our unity and our energy.”
Ever since suffering a pair of disheartening losses to Stanford and Cal two and a half weeks ago, in which their energy was lacking, UCLA’s dedication to “passion plays” has been evident. The Bruins have won four straight games, winning three of those games by 15 points or more.
“I think we kind of went to a lull there losing to Stanford and Cal, but I think we definitely bounced back,” senior guard Mariah Williams said.
Even when all Lemberger has to show for her hustles are bumps and bruises rather than the ball, Close counts the play as a positive one.
A notable example came in No. 17 UCLA’s game against Arizona, the Bruins’ first game since their losses to the Bay Area teams. Despite the 17 steals her team collected, Close expressed more excitement about the number of tipped passes her team had, regardless of whether UCLA (17-4, 8-2 Pac-12) ended up with the ball. Each tipped pass was a “passion play” – it proved to Close that her team was playing with heart and energy.
“Deflections is one of those statistical categories that we keep that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet (but) that makes a complete difference in the game,” Close said.
“When you ask about how important that is relative to the steals, I think ‘passion plays’ are more important because it’s doing the dirty work. It’s doing the thing the team needs you to do even if you never get recognized for it.”
That lack of recognition and team-first attitude goes hand in hand with hustle plays.
“If no one cares about who is the recipient, now your process goals become the most important thing,” Close said.
Yet as much as the coaches preach hustling, selflessness and the importance of these “passion plays,” it is ultimately up to the players to carry them out.
“I think it’s their decision. I think (as) coaches, we try really hard to influence (the players), but every player has a choice every day on every possession,” Close said.