UCLA women’s basketball recovers with perfect road trip before Pac-12 tournament
UCLA women’s basketball players huddle up. The team finished the year with its worst regular-season record since 2014-2015. (Sarah Teng/Daily Bruin)
By Francis Moon
Feb. 28, 2022 2:37 p.m.
The Bruins entered last week having lost their seventh game in nine tries, dropping their overall record to .500 for the first time all season.
With two matchups left in the campaign, UCLA women’s basketball (13-11, 8-8 Pac-12) was one loss away from finishing the regular season at .500 or worse for the first time since the 2014-2015 season. But with wins over then-No. 12 Arizona and Arizona State on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, the blue and gold avoided tumbling further down the conference standings and will head into the Pac-12 tournament this week as the No. 7 seed.
Following Saturday’s win to close the regular season, coach Cori Close said the responsibility falls on the Bruins to turn the challenges and adversity from the past few months into growth and success.
“Diamonds are only made through intense pressure and heat,” Close said. “We have to be willing to let the pressure heat us up, and then choose refinement – ‘I want this to work in me, as painful as it is, as frustrating as it is, I want it to develop character on the inside.’”
Though UCLA may be picking up steam at just the right time, the season was far from a walk in the park.
After starting the season 3-0, things took a quick turn when the Bruins left Florida having lost two of three games in the Gulf Coast Showcase in late November, all against unranked opponents. After dropping out of the AP Poll that week, the blue and gold never made an appearance in the rankings again this year.
They did show signs of life afterward – namely a 79-point win over San Jose State on Dec. 5 and back-to-back double-digit wins over USC on Jan. 20 and 23 as part of a four-game winning streak during conference play.
However, UCLA dropped an opportunity for a signature win when it fell to then-No. 3 Connecticut – playing in its first game without guard Paige Bueckers – on Dec. 11 and sustained two separate three-game losing streaks in its conference schedule.
But from Dec. 16 to Jan. 7, all five of the Bruins’ scheduled matchups were canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 protocols, cutting short their preparation for the conference season.
In addition, junior guard Charisma Osborne, graduate student guard Jaelynn Penn and redshirt freshman guard Dominique Onu – three of the Bruins’ top-five scorers – missed multiple games because of injuries. The supporting cast couldn’t avoid the injury bug either, leaving Close with a seven- or eight-person rotation for a majority of the season.
However, the 11th-year coach said throughout the year that neither she nor her players have used these setbacks as an excuse. Rather, Close said she wants the team to always focus on self-improvement.
“I want us completely focused on, ‘What does it look like for us to improve? And how much joy can we bring?'” Close said.
Junior guard Camryn Brown – who Close said has one of the highest basketball IQs of anyone she’s been around – said prior to Thursday’s matchup with Arizona that the team has taken it week by week this season while maintaining a growth mindset by not letting built-up frustration take away from her and her teammates’ love of the game.
Brown made her season debut Jan. 30 against Oregon State after recovering from her third career torn ACL and has played 13.4 minutes per contest in 10 games, including three starts.
“It’s been kind of frustrating what we’ve been going through,” Brown said. “We just keep remembering what it felt like when we had to sit on the sidelines and watch. … We get to play the game we love with people we enjoy playing with, so that’s how we’ve been resetting from the frustration we’ve been having.”
On top of the in-season injuries, the Bruins also played the whole season without both redshirt freshman forward Emily Bessoir – who tore her ACL prior to the season – and graduate student guard Gina Conti, who had used her extra year of eligibility to transfer to UCLA last offseason. Both players were expected to play heavy minutes for the blue and gold this season, leaving holes in the Close’s lineup even before the start of the campaign.
The Bruins will have an uphill battle to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, but Osborne said regardless of the pressure and setbacks, the team always keeps things in perspective by enjoying its chances to be on the court.
“These last few games, I’ve had so much fun,” Osborne said. “I’m excited to continue that.”