Cori Close received a text from Michaela Onyenwere last weekend.
“I didn’t make it,” the sophomore forward wrote.
Close, the UCLA women’s basketball coach, said she was shocked that Onyenwere didn’t earn a spot on the 2019 U.S. women’s basketball team for the Pan American Games.
But before Close could think too much about Onyenwere’s performance at the tryout, she got another text.
“Just kidding,” Onyenwere wrote. “I made it.”
“They’re looking for gold-medal habits – you compete every possession, and you always put your country above yourself,” Close said. “That’s what (Onyenwere) does for us at UCLA, and I think that’s what she’ll do for USA basketball.”
Thirty-five players were invited to try out for 12 spots on the USA Basketball team that will compete in the Pan American Games this August in Lima, Peru.
Onyenwere said the athletes trained twice a day for four days in Colorado Springs, Colorado – just about an hour drive from her hometown of Aurora – before the committee made its decisions.
“I was actually really, really nervous when they brought us into the gym to read off the names,” Onyenwere said. “I wasn’t really sure if I’d make the team – you play well, you try to do your best, but there are a lot of good people around you, so you don’t really know.”
But Onyenwere heard her name called.
The sophomore said she stifled her initial reaction to spare the feelings of those who didn’t hear their name called, but internally, Onyenwere was excited to play with her new teammates.
Five players on the selected team have earned medals with the U-17, U-18 and U-19 teams. Onyenwere is one of three players with experience at previous USA Basketball trials, but had never made a roster.
“I personally have never made a team for USA,” Onyenwere said. “So just being around those players who have that type of talent and that type of work ethic that is enough for USA – and some of them have won gold medals – … it’s a great honor to be with them.”
Despite lacking international experience, Onyenwere has played in every UCLA game since joining the Bruins in 2017, and earned a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. This year, the forward led UCLA in rebounds and points with 298 and 642 respectively.
Junior guard Japreece Dean said it’s not just Onyenwere’s contributions to the stats sheet that make her a valuable player – it’s her team-first mentality.
“(Onyenwere) gives,” Dean said. “She gives to other people and she contributes to the team. She knows how to connect with people and she treats people right.”
Close agreed with Dean and said Onyenwere’s relentlessness sets her apart in a field of 35 of the nation’s best players. The coach followed the tryouts closely and pointed out that Onyenwere was one of the only players who never got a sub in a lot of the games.
The team will attend training camp in Colorado Springs from July 23 to Aug. 5 before traveling to Peru for the Pan American Games, where Onyenwere will represent her country and her school.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for (Onyenwere) and for our program to show what we develop and what kind of kids we get here,” Dean said.
Onyenwere will have a chance to prove herself on the world stage this summer, but on a team with three other high-level forwards – including two that have medaled with the U.S. – she said she will have to do more than just rebound.
“My rebounding is something I do really well, but along with a lot of great post players already on the team, (I’m) just trying to find a way to contribute in any way I can, whether that’s scoring or rebounding,” Onyenwere said. “Whatever I can do is what I’ll do.”