Senior guard Mariah Williams admired coach Nikki Caldwell – her persona, her demeanor, her character – so much that she chose to attend UCLA mainly because of her.
Williams said she had “faith in (Caldwell’s) ability to coach.” But after Williams’ sophomore season, the then-UCLA coach, Caldwell, left for the same position at LSU.
The Bruins had just notched their highest regular season and conference win totals in school history, but Caldwell’s departure shelved much of that excitement.
“It hurt,” redshirt senior forward Jasmine Dixon said.
“It was pretty disappointing,” said Williams.
It was just one hiccup of many in the roller coaster ride that has been the careers of the women’s basketball team’s seniors – Williams, Dixon, guard/forward Markel Walker and forward Alyssia Brewer.
When No. 17 UCLA (20-6, 11-4 Pac-12) plays USC (8-18, 5-10) on Sunday, it will be these seniors’ final home game and a chance for them to reflect on just how far they’ve come.
The seniors each took a leap of faith to become Bruins.
In 2009, UCLA had just wrapped up its third consecutive season without an NCAA tournament appearance.
But Walker, the No. 4 ESPNU HoopGurlz recruit from Philadelphia, and Williams, a star high school point guard out of Colorado, committed nonetheless.
Dixon too opted for UCLA, transferring in from Rutgers University in 2010. The following year, Brewer transferred from the University of Tennessee.
Both left nationally recognized women’s basketball programs to resurrect UCLA’s program.
“This senior class, they’ve been risk takers,” said coach Cori Close.
“They sort of came when the program was not going to the NCAA tournament every year, and really wanted to be change agents, and I think you can’t put a price tag on that.”
As these seniors shook off the sorrows from Caldwell’s exit, they were faced with another challenge: learning to trust the new coach, Close.
They entered what should have been the prime of their UCLA careers in Close’s first season.
Riding a wealth of returning talent, the Bruins came into the 2011-2012 season with high expectations only to have them crumble under a rash of injuries to major players, limping to a 14-16 finish.
But Close’s commitment to her team never wavered, and that slowly began to earn her the respect and trust of the seniors.
“It took courage (for them) to trust again. It took courage to invest in a new system. And it took courage to try and let us in their marks,” Close said.
Now, Close is looking to make these seniors’ tumultuous rides all worth it.
“I really am fighting for (these seniors),” Close said. “I want to finish in a way that rewards them for their sacrifice and perseverance. … I’m going to give everything I can to fight for these last six weeks.”