The Pac-12 Network’s camera was focused on Thea Lemberger’s face.
But this time, she wasn’t standing on the line ready to shoot a free throw. All she could do was watch in her warm-up gear from the bench as her team tried to overcome a deficit against Colorado.
The senior guard was a conspicuous absence in No. 8 seed UCLA’s 76-65 loss to No. 9 seed Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
Prior to Thursday’s game against the Buffaloes, she’d started in all but one of the games; even a fracture in her right leg didn’t sideline her.
But when the risks of playing were targeted on the brain, the medical staff had to draw the line.
“It was really hard; I shed a few tears, so did she,” said coach Cori Close about informing Lemberger a night before the game that she wasn’t cleared to play because of a concussion.
“I really think that that’s the hardest part about the loss (Thursday). It’s that we didn’t get a chance to give Thea an opportunity ‘cause we were hopeful that she would get a chance to play a few minutes if we got to tomorrow.”
Another player who had to give up the blue and gold jersey after Thursday’s events is sixth-year senior forward Atonye Nyingifa.
Nyingifa’s production fell to a level that was less than what the team’s top scorer usually averages against a tough defending Colorado team that sent double and triple teams against the forward.
But the two-time All-Pac-12 honoree knows that the things she’s accomplished over her years at UCLA outshine whatever disappointments may come with ending her college career with a loss.
“Looking upon this game, it’s not the ideal way to end it,” Nyingifa said. “Little frustrated, little angry, but I know that this game doesn’t define me. I’ve had a great career here and I’m just happy that I’ve had the opportunity to play for UCLA.”
For the coach who places emphasis on the growth of her players, Close said the graduating players will be missed for their “almost indescribable” growth throughout the years.
“I could not be more thankful to be both Atonye’s and Thea’s coach, but I’m probably more proud of who they’ve grown to be as leaders and as young women than I am about who they are as basketball players,” Close said. “And I think they’re pretty spectacular basketball players.”
One bright spark that came from the UCLA (13-18, 7-12 Pac-12) loss to Colorado (17-13, 7-12) was sophomore guard Nirra Fields’ performance.
With the absence of one of the team’s top scorers in Lemberger, Fields proved that she was able to rise to the occasion and score 24 points.
“I still have a lot of growing to do, but I’m also satisfied and happy with the growth I’ve had this year and I will continue to improve and try to grow in the next two years,” Fields said.
But more importantly, Close said that the torch has been passed. Lemberger was once Fields’ inspiration, a player who showed consistency and impeccable work ethic. After the events this season and the imminent departure of Lemberger, it’s time for Fields to set that example for the incoming Bruins.
In a season mired with injury, the focus for the players fell more on personal growth rather than results. It wasn’t just about getting a “W” for the Bruins – it was about doing their best to respect and represent the four letters they wore across their chest.
At the conclusion of that season, the players learned they were fighters. They learned that they’d still give their best 40 minutes for the school no matter what obstacles lay in their wake.
They’ve used a season laced with misfortune to create a stable foundation to form the basis for success when the decks aren’t stacked against them.
“What I told them after the game is, ‘If someone would’ve told me what our record was going to end up being, and I was going to be, in spite of our record, I was going to be so proud of the growth of our team, I would’ve said they were crazy,’” Close said. “But I’ve never been more proud of the growth of a basketball team.”