With an experienced core and a slew of talented underclassmen, UCLA women’s basketball has high expectations for the upcoming season.
“Our core group is still here,” said senior forward Monique Billings. “We’ve seen and know what to expect.”
The No. 8 Bruins have reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history, but coach Cori Close feels that this year’s team could be the one that pushes them over the hump.
“I think their potential is limitless,” said Close. “We have all the pieces.”
UCLA will bring back four of its five starters from last season, including senior guards Jordin Canada and Kelli Hayes, as well as Billings and junior guard Kennedy Burke.
Canada led the Bruins in points and assists last season, averaging 17.8 points per game and finishing ninth in the country with 7.1 assists per game.
Her teammate, Billings, is widely recognized in the sport for her work ethic and rapid progression. She averaged a double-double for the first time in her career last season where she scored 16.7 points and hauled in 10.5 rebounds per game.
“I try to outwork my opponents,” Billings said. “I’m always an underdog, I started out as an underdog and I still see myself as an underdog, so I just try to work hard and prove myself and prove my game.”
Joining the core group of upperclassmen will be a highly-touted freshman class that includes guards Chantel Horvat and Kayla Owens, as well as forwards Michaela Onyenwere and Lauryn Miller.
Onyenwere is ranked 10th on the 2017 espnW recruit rankings and gave fans an early glimpse of her potential in an exhibition match against Vanguard University last weekend, leading the Bruins with 14 points while grabbing nine rebounds.
Horvat, ranked 15th, recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. By the end of the game, freshmen had accounted for 42 of UCLA’s 87 points.
“They work really hard and they bring a lot of energy and intensity,” Billings said. “They’re just go-getters on the court so it’s really exciting and really fun to play with them.”
With new faces coming in, however, some familiar ones have moved on. Former guard Kari Korver, who led UCLA in three-pointers in each of her seasons, graduated following last season’s campaign, and Close acknowledged that filling her void will be a challenge.
“(Korver) is not replaced by one person,” Close said. “It’s going to be a whole committee of people because she was a pillar of our character, and obviously her hustle and her incredible work ethic was a really huge part of our foundation.”
Following elimination in the Pac-12 tournament last season, Canada expressed how much she wanted to win for Korver, and that same desire to win for the seniors has been passed down to players such as Burke.
“Honestly as a team, we have to play for (Billings) and (Canada) because it’s their senior year, and we want to get to Columbus, Ohio (for the Final Four),” Burke said.
UCLA has only won the Pac-12 title once and has never reached a Final Four. The Bruins will have an opportunity to see where they stack up with some of the nation’s top teams when they take on No. 3 Baylor and No. 1 Connecticut in just their second week of the season.