Riding an eight-game winning streak, coach Cori Close and the Bruins aren’t getting comfortable just yet.
“I couldn’t care less about streaks,” Close said Wednesday. “The reality is that I really care about how we’re getting better.”
With the Pac-12 season winding down, No. 8 UCLA women’s basketball (19-4, 10-2 Pac-12) will be taking on both Arizona (6-17, 2-10) and No. 25 Arizona State (17-7, 8-4) for the first time this season. The Wildcats are second to last in the conference, but Close refuses to discount her opponent based on the standings.
“They’re going to come fighting, and they’re going to be throwing blows, so to speak,” Close said. “Scouting reports are about tools and preparation so that you can play to your strengths and play your best, and that doesn’t matter whether we’re playing Arizona … or Stanford.”
Just as it did last weekend against USC, UCLA will be counting on senior forward Monique Billings to carry part of the load on both ends of the floor. In the two wins against the Trojans, Billings averaged 16 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, while also notching three blocks in each game.
However, despite Billings’ impact on the box score, the senior thinks that one of her most important roles going forward is as a mentor to her younger teammates.
“I know it’s not easy; I can only speak from my experience as a freshman or an underclassman,” Billings said. “I just try to be consistent and be a leader that they can talk to and depend on in all situations.”
One of the less experienced players under Billings’ wing is her running mate in the frontcourt, redshirt junior forward Lajahna Drummer. She has had two double-doubles in her last three games, and she believes she and Billings are a great pair.
“I feel like we go hand and hand with each other,” Drummer said. “If she’s not inside, I’m inside. If she’s inside, I’m outside. I just feel like we complement each other.”
Drummer is the team leader in 3-point shooting percentage, and is second only to Billings in rebounds per game, demonstrating her diverse play style on both ends of the floor.
UCLA’s other opponent this weekend, Arizona State, has just made the leap into the AP Top 25, thanks in large part to its defense, which ranks first in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils’ stingy 56.5 points against per game place them fifth among Power Five conference teams this season.
“(ASU coach) Charli Turner Thorne always has a great defensive team,” Close said. “They’re really committed to the defensive end, and they play extremely hard and they play with a lot of depth, and I’ve always respected the consistency in which (Thorne’s) teams played defense.
The Bruins have seen some recent success against the Sun Devils, beating them in each of their past four matchups. However, Arizona State took the previous three battles, making the matchup a tight one over the past five years.
Close said that her team’s improvement was her primary focus in practice throughout the week.
“I really believe that the teams that bring enthusiasm when they don’t feel like it – when they learn to make everything fun, even when it’s hard, when they learn to blow wind into the sails of their teammates – they’re going to continue to get better,” Close said. “That’s my singular focus this week: bring urgency to the possession and make everything we do fun.”
The Bruins take on the Wildcats on Friday 8 p.m. in Pauley Pavilion, and will then turn their attention to the Sun Devils for another home matchup on Sunday at 1 p.m.