It’s the end of a Friday afternoon practice. Coach Cori Close has finished her speech; everyone in the huddle has their hands up in the air, and one shout ends the day’s events: beyond!
“Beyond is our theme for the year. It’s not beyond like beyond where you’ve gone in the NCAA tournament. Beyond is a blueprint; beyond is beyond yourself, beyond your comfort zone, beyond training the way you’ve done in the past,” Close said. “It’s really the way we want to live our lives and the way we want to make choices, it’s sort of beyond what we’ve done before. It has everything to do with preparation, nothing to do with results.”
Close’s philosophy mirrors that of another basketball coach who also once paced the hardwood floors of Pauley Pavilion – former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden.
Wooden, whose image has been immortalized in front of the venue, would tell his players not to pay attention to the scoreboard and to only focus on giving it their all, both on the court and in practice – a similar message to what Close has gotten across to her players.
“We only have three goals: to be ready mentally, physically and just give it your best. That’s all we have,” said sophomore guard Nirra Fields. “We’re not an outcome-based team, so we’re not really relying on what we do on the court to predict how good our team is and how we’re progressing.”
But it hasn’t been the best of situations for the Bruins going into the season. The team will have to cope with the losses of two key pieces, junior forward Kacy Swain and sophomore guard Kari Korver, to ACL injuries sustained during preseason practice.
According to Close, the team’s strategy for dealing with the injuries of Swain and Korver is a simple one – the issue is not something worth mulling over.
“It’s only as much of an issue as we allow it to be. I’ve forbidden them to even mention it in the locker room or in the film room with each other because any focus we put on the injuries is taking away focus of all the strong pieces that we do have,” Close said.
The Bruins showed just what those pieces are capable of doing in their exhibition game against the Vanguard University Lions on Halloween. In that contest, four of the five Bruin starters ended the night scoring double figures.
Among those four players are returning veterans sixth-year senior forward Atonye Nyingifa – last season’s leading scorer – and senior guard Thea Lemberger. Rounding out the four are Fields and one of UCLA’s latest roster acquisitions, junior center Luiana Livulo.
Fields, now armed with a year’s experience of playing at the collegiate level under her belt, says she’s determined to make a larger contribution to the team as she gets ready to accept new roles and responsibility that will come with her sophomore season.
“I definitely have to be more of an impact player on the team. You know, getting passion plays, which is hustle plays, getting tips on the ball, playing great defense in order to help my teammates out,” Fields said. “I’m more counted on; so all the responsibility that I do have, I have to take pride in that and just be a role model and leader for the team.”
If there’s one message that the Bruins have picked up in their practices leading up to their season opener at Nebraska today, it’s that they succeed and fail as a team.
“We’ve put possessions together in scrimmages and in practice where we have known our purpose and played together and we’ve seen great things from that, but on the other side of that, when we haven’t, we’ve also seen the results of that, and we can’t get away with not doing that,” Lemberger said.
It’s that same mentality of working as a team and supporting one another that Close says she believes will be the key to unlocking their goal of developing as players.
“A lot of people are stepping into new roles, so there’s this sense of optimism. I think the challenges are that people haven’t been through the fire in the roles that they have, so we’re going to have to develop that identity,” Close said. “We’re really excited. We’re excited because we’re going to do it. We can’t do it individually, but we have plenty if we do it as a team.”