At the end of 40 minutes, the Stanford Cardinal emerged
The primarily blue crowd in Pauley Pavilion was on its feet, applauding. But the cheers were not for the No. 5 Cardinal that had just beaten the Bruins 65-56; they was directed to the efforts of senior guard Thea Lemberger and sixth-year senior forward Atonye Nyingifa, who had just completed their last home game.
If Lemberger and Nyingifa were looking for a fairy-tale ending in their last weekend at Pauley, what transpired was probably not the answer. Their last two home games included Sunday’s loss to Stanford and Friday’s narrow defeat to No. 18 Cal 77–72.
“We needed to put the pedal to the metal and get our lead and we didn’t,” Lemberger said, “I was frustrated with that knowing that I’m not going to play in this arena again.”
Now that Pauley Pavilion has become a thing of the past for Lemberger and Nyingifa, they might have preferred an alternate scenario to bow out from the arena. But coach Cori Close is looking at the bigger picture: the legacy the two will leave behind.
For Close, Lemberger and Nyingifa’s efforts will always be the foundation of the future of women’s basketball’s success.
She recalled a conversation she had with a prominent high school basketball coach a week ago in Oregon.
“Someday you’re going to be standing on the podium of the Final Four, just make sure you remember what your bricks and mortar were,” the high school basketball coach told her.
Close said she has no doubt what that means in the context of the UCLA women’s basketball locker room.
“Thea and Atonye are our bricks and mortar,” Close said. “Our work ethic has been the best since I’ve been here because of them.”
If this weekend’s games were the audition for the next leaders on the team, the frontrunner on the court might just be sophomore guard Nirra Fields, who led the team in scoring for both games with 30 points against Cal and 24 against Stanford.
Off the court, Fields has also shown the same maturity as a leader. She wouldn’t let the loss to Stanford perturb her because she knew she and her teammates fought hard.
“It wasn’t frustrating for me,” Fields said. “I thought we battled really hard into the end. … I’m just really proud of how my team battled till the end.”
After Sunday’s game, Nyingifa and Lemberger will walk out of Pauley Pavilion as players on the women’s basketball team.
There will be different players taking over the helm of leadership, but those players will share the same drive and determination.
It’s all thanks to the culture Lemberger and Nyingifa helped establish.