There was no blueprint, floor plan or contractor.
But when tasked to build a house at the beginning of the season, the Bruins exceeded that expectation.
“I think we built a mansion, honestly,” said junior guard Japreece Dean. “People stepped up into huge roles, and no one was scared and no one backed down.”
UCLA women’s basketball (22-13, 12-6 Pac-12) was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 and went 0-3 at the Paradise Jam after graduating two first-round picks to the WNBA.
But the Bruins didn’t let their house collapse after their worst start to a season since 2014. Still, UCLA made the Sweet 16 for a fourth consecutive year.
“No media outlet predicted us to get this far,” said sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere. “Nobody did. … But when you have a coaching staff that really cares and believes in you, that takes you far.”
The Bruins – who played Connecticut in the NCAA regional final Friday – held the Huskies to a nine-point quarter and led by as many as five in the second half before falling 69-61.
Despite finishing the season 13-4, UCLA suffered an overtime loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, leaving coach Cori Close and the rest of the Bruins in tears.
Both the Huskies and the Ducks will compete in the Final Four on Friday.
“We have a saying in our program that you’re not born for this, you’re built for this,” Close said after the loss to UConn. “We talked about building a house all year long, and what we want that house to look like.”
Dean said the home that was built – led by Close – provided the team with a camaraderie that kept the Bruins gelled together.
“The house just consists of people doing different things and staying together,” Dean said. “(Close) never wavered when we were losing games in the beginning. … She kept us encouraged, and we decided that we were going to be encouraged and stay together.”
UCLA will bid farewell to senior starters forward Lajahna Drummer and guard Kennedy Burke as well as redshirt senior guard Chrissy Baird.
Burke is projected to be a second round draft pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft on Wednesday. The guard finished her collegiate campaign scoring her 1,500th career point in the game against UConn, and is one of only four players in program history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks.
“She’s an elite defender and she’s a matchup nightmare,” Close said.
The Bruins will return Dean, who was granted another year of eligibility after sitting out a season due to transferring rules. The guard finished the season averaging 14.1 points per game and 92.2% from the free-throw line, setting a new UCLA record.
UCLA will also bring back redshirt freshman guard Lindsey Corsaro from the starting lineup, and welcome a pair of McDonald All-American freshmen guards in Charisma Osborne and Jaden Owens for the 2019-2020 season.
With the trajectory of this season, Close said the house that the Bruins built defined UCLA’s culture – and that culture is ultimately what contributes to winning.
“(Establishing a culture) is what we’re trying to do,” Close said. “(Winning is) really a byproduct of character. It’s a byproduct of being willing to give and to grow every single day.”
Even former Bruin Jordin Canada – a current guard for the Seattle Storm – said she was invested in this year’s team. Canada sent Close a text following UCLA’s second round upset over Maryland from Poland, where she is currently playing overseas.
“Coach, I’m just so proud of this team,” Canada wrote. “I’ve stayed up and watched almost every game. We’re not just a basketball team, we’re a basketball program.”
The seniors may be graduating, but the culture that the house embodies will still stand.
Even better, the incoming freshmen get to inherit a mansion.