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Candid Carlson: Cori Close’s latest Sweet 16 defeat is her most disappointing loss yet

Coach Cori Close walks on the court. Throughout her 13-year tenure, Close has not won a championship. (Brandon Morquecho/Photo editor)

By Gavin Carlson

April 2, 2024 2:00 p.m.

This post was updated April 2 at 10:10 p.m.

ALBANY, N.Y. – During UCLA women’s basketball’s season opener Nov. 6, the Pauley Pavilion jumbotron played what was meant to be a simple, fun video.

In the segment, Bruin players explained popular slang to coach Cori Close to varied success.

But after her team spelled out the meaning of the saying “no cap,” Close responded with a phrase to display her understanding.

“We’re going to the Final Four, no cap,” Close said.

Almost five months later, following the Bruins’ latest March Madness disappointment, she didn’t follow through.

UCLA fell not one, but two wins short of that preseason prediction. Close’s shortcomings in the 2023-2024 season are firmly in the spotlight.

After graduate student guard Charisma Osborne skipped the 2023 WNBA draft to return to UCLA, former No. 1 overall high school recruit and 6-foot-7 sophomore center Lauren Betts transferred from Stanford, and UCLA’s top-ranked 2022 recruiting class got one year older, the Bruins were ranked inside the AP preseason top five for the first time this century. And with a 14-0 start to the regular season pushing UCLA up to No. 2 for the first time in program history, Close had her best shot at a national championship.

Despite boasting one of the most talented and complete rosters in the nation, the Bruins were outmatched and out-coached when it mattered most in their Sweet 16 defeat Saturday afternoon. LSU outscored UCLA 14-2 in the final 2 1/2 minutes to end its season well short of Close’s early prediction.

And the season opener wasn’t the only time Close talked about reaching Cleveland for the 2024 Final Four.

The 13th-year coach mentioned the coveted final destination on multiple occasions to reporters after practices and during media availabilities in a more serious tone. In a one-on-one interview in late February, I asked Close about her embrace with Osborne at the end of their NCAA Tournament second-round victory last season and how a similar embrace would feel this season knowing Osborne’s collegiate career is coming to end.

Her response was nine words.

“I want that same hug to be in Cleveland,” Close said.

It won’t be. And while Osborne certainly wasn’t great in her final game in college – scoring just eight points and turning the ball over six times – the blame still falls on her coach more than anyone else.

That’s how this business works.

(Aidan Sun/Daily Bruin)
Close points as she coaches her team. (Aidan Sun/Daily Bruin)

Close knows that more than anybody and took responsibility after the defeat, as she always does. But then she mentioned the heightened difficulty of the region they failed to win.

Facing the defending champions in the Sweet 16 despite being a No. 2 seed is a difficult draw. Knock LSU off, and a matchup with Iowa – led by one of the sport’s all-time greats in guard Caitlin Clark – would have been the reward.

The Albany 2 region was probably the toughest path to the Final Four in this year’s tournament, and Close would not be wrong for believing that.

But Close was even more correct in admitting that the Bruins didn’t need to be in Albany in the first place.

“There’s no excuses. We had this under our control. We could have not been in Albany,” Close said. “We lost some games that we shouldn’t have lost.”

Therein lies the problem.

After starting 14-0, UCLA lost four of its next seven games.

The team continued its late-game struggles that have plagued Close throughout her career in road losses to USC, Utah and Oregon State, and it followed an inexplicable loss to Pac-12 bottom-feeder Washington State by trailing by as many as 30 in a blowout defeat at Stanford without Betts.

In what could have been their first Pac-12 regular-season championship campaign since 1998-1999, the Bruins finished third. That’s respectable in many circumstances, but not for this roster, and not after years of coming up just short.

The strength of the Pac-12 meant a trip to the tournament championship game – regardless of the outcome in that game itself – would have given the Bruins a serious chance to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite regular-season stumbles. But UCLA lost to USC in double overtime in the conference semifinals.

While focused on where her team would finish the season, Close failed to avoid a consistent issue over her tenure – finishing big games.

“We had opportunities to close them, we didn’t, and that’s why we’re on the East Coast,” Close said following Saturday’s disappointment. “We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”

The Trojans went on to win the conference tournament and beat the Bruins to a No. 1 seed in March Madness.

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Close sits and her team gathers around her during a timeout. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

The rest is history – an inexcusable one, at that.

And USC’s role in that history makes matters worse.

The only city Close mentioned more than Cleveland this year was Los Angeles.

She didn’t just talk about Westwood, but rather the greater LA area – and more than ever before.

During UCLA’s record-breaking year, freshman phenom JuJu Watkins simultaneously led USC to its best season in decades. Both before and after the rivals’ three epic battles, Close repeatedly gave credit to coach Lindsay Gottlieb and urged fans and media to help grow the women’s game in all of Southern California.

But now USC might already be ahead of its rival.

The Trojans were coming off of a sub-.500 season when they hired Gottlieb in May 2021. In just three years, she came within eight points of the Final Four, which Close and UCLA haven’t reached.

In the same backyard, with the same level of attention, the argument can be made that Gottlieb has already accomplished as much as Close in less than a quarter of the time.

That’s damning.

Now, it’s probably unfair given where she’s taken the Bruins.

Close has built up her program the way UCLA fans demand, with top-ranked recruiting classes, a growing presence in the WNBA, community service initiatives and Close’s own infectious personality.

She checks a lot of boxes for an elite college coach.

But basketball in Westwood is about championships, and UCLA hasn’t sniffed those under Close – only coming close at the conference level during an improbable tournament run in 2023.

“We’ve obviously been to a lot of Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight,” Close said. “We want more. … That’s (what) my job is this offseason – to figure out how we can earn more.”

The Bruins will have a loaded roster once again next year even in the wake of Osborne’s departure, and everyone will be wondering if UCLA can finally reach that elusive Final Four in Tampa, Florida, in 2025.

But with her resume on the line, Close needs tangible success, not manifestation, to bring herself and her program to that destination.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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