After graduating a decorated class of seniors, the Bruins were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 this season.
“That’s when the outside world kind of started talking about, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a rebuilding year for UCLA, they’re going to have a rough year,’” said redshirt senior guard Chrissy Baird.
And after a season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount and a 34-point loss to North Carolina, No. 20 UCLA women’s basketball (20-12, 12-6 Pac-12) was off to its worst start since 2014.
But coach Cori Close said the Bruins weren’t going to let that define the rest of their season.
“(We chose) to stay together and chose a growth mindset even when it was painful,” Close said. “That’s what gave us the incremental steps to get us to the point where we had that tipping point that happened at Arizona State.”
UCLA upset then-No. 16 Arizona State 61-59 with a game-winning 3 from senior guard Japreece Dean on Jan. 25, and went on to finish the regular season winning 10 of its last 12 games.
During that stretch, UCLA shocked Matthew Knight Arena on Feb. 22, upsetting then-No. 2 Oregon. But Close said doubt continued to loom over UCLA because Oregon was without its leading scorer Ruthy Hebard due to injury.
“People said ‘Oh, it wasn’t a big deal,’” Close said, following the Bruins’ loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 tournament. “(They said we) beat them when they were No. 2 because they didn’t have (Hebard). I think we proved today that we can play at a pretty high level even when they’ve got (Hebard).”
Close said the reason why the overtime loss hurt more than any other loss during the regular season was because of how close the team was and how much they believed in each other.
“What I told them in the locker room is when you love deeply, it hurts more,” Close said. “When you invest deeply, it’s going to really sting when you’re disappointed.”
Baird was the first to comfort both Dean and senior guard Kennedy Burke when the two buried their faces in their jerseys, after falling short in the semifinals in back-to-back years.
“I’ve never been on a team that’s closer, and I think that’s part of it,” Baird said. “That we love each other so much that when you look at the person to your left or to your right, you don’t want to let them down.”
Burke – who finished the game with a double-double, notching 27 points and 10 rebounds – said that despite falling short, the team has proved to the committee it deserves a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“We can compete with any team in the country,” Burke said. “It just comes from loving each other and just being invested in each other.”
Although Baird has only played a total of 23 minutes in nine games during her final season, her voice and presence during practice continues to provide a spark for the Bruins.
“It’s fun for me when I sit on the bench and watch them play,” Baird said. “The other team is calling a play and I’m like, ‘We ran that on the scout team and they defended it perfectly.’ And it’s like, yeah, you didn’t see me on the court, but what you didn’t get to see was the fact that the five people that weren’t playing all ran that at practice yesterday and that’s why they got the stop.”
UCLA may have started out the season losing five of its first eight games, but Baird said the Bruins have come a long way.
“You look at where we are now and it’s like, ‘Dang,'” Baird said. “Would we have loved to win some more games in November and December? Absolutely. But if losing those games didn’t lead us here, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”