Los Angeles – When the final buzzer sounded, both UCLA and Arizona State players were still fighting for the rebound underneath the visitor’s basket.
So intense was the battle that it seemed like everyone on the court, and in the arena, had lost track of time during the 21.7 seconds that ended with the No. 10 Bruins escaping the Sun Devils, 68-66.
There was a pause on the floor as players absorbed that the game was over. The crowd, which had been screaming wildly throughout the match up, was suddenly silent in a collective exhale.
The win meant that UCLA was 13-0 and had broken a program record for best season start. It meant that they survived a fourth-quarter ASU attack in which they were out-rebounded, 19-3, including four offensive rebounds in the final seconds that they couldn’t convert into a bucket.
“Panic,” Bruin coach Cori Close said of her reaction to the last stanza of the game. “They person-handled us in the last four minutes. They just absolutely wanted rebounds more than we did.”
Japreece Dean led UCLA with 23 points, which included five three-point shots. Lindsey Corsaro scored 12 points, Charisma Osborne, 10, and Lauryn Miller grabbed 10 rebounds. Top scorer Michaela Onyenwere scored just nine points.
The Bruins got off to a quick 13-2 start, but the Sun Devils narrowed that margin to five points by the end of the first quarter. In the second, they out-shot the hosts to stay within four points at the break.
In the third frame ASU emerged with both offensive and defensive intensity, as Robbi Ryan scored eight and Ja’Tavia Tapley five to help tie the score at 56 going into the final 10 minutes.
The fourth quarter was all Sun Devils on the boards, despite their relatively low shooting percentage. But ultimately it was their failure to convert as time expired that cost them the game.
Ryan finished with 17 points and Tapley 10 for the visitors.
Close said her team struggled when they lost focus.
“(Assistant) coach Tasha (Brown) said it best in the locker room, that we lost track of who we were and we lost track of how we were built,” Close said. “In this Pac-12 schedule, we’ve got to learn quickly.”
ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said her number one message for her team at halftime was to step up their rebounding percentage.
“You control the boards, you control the game,” she said. “I thought we adjusted pretty well.”
She said she liked the Sun Devils’ toughness, and that they gave themselves a chance to win the game. But ultimately, the youth and inexperience of the roster was a factor.
“We needed to make more plays and execute better down the stretch,” Turner Thorne said. “We had our opportunities, but we didn’t execute……it was fun and frustrating at the same time.”
UCLA takes on No. 18 Arizona Sunday in a battle of unbeaten teams, as there are only six undefeated squads left in Division I.
Close said Saturday would be a heavy day of preparation.
“We need to attack the paint in more ways than just Japreece. We didn’t set screens well enough to create an offensive flow,” she said. “In this conference, you have to be thinking about personnel and tendencies (of opposing players), and stay locked in.
There is a lot of basketball yet to play this season, and the SEC promises to be a dog fight yet again. But one thing is already clear:
Arkansas is back.
In the first AP top 25 poll of the year they were ranked No. 22 – the first time they have been ranked since 2015, and the first time they have started a season ranked since 2002, when Gary Blair was the head coach.
The Razorbacks have stayed in it, too, remaining in the poll and ending preconference play 12-1, which only No. 4 South Carolina and No. 11 Texas A&M equaled. They are making a living from three-point shooting, lack of turnovers and a high free-throw percentage.
The team’s high-energy, running style of play and joy on the floor, led by star guard Chelsea Dungee, has brought the crowds out and made coach Mike Neighbors a celebrity in his home state. It is a far cry from recent years, when Arkansas lived in the basement of their league.
“I don’t coach rankings,” said Neighbors, now in his third year with the program. “But we expect to be in the conversation at tournament time every year and see where we are. We want to be the best program we can be, and it starts with beating good programs on a consistent basis.”
After going 13-18, including 3-13 in the SEC, in Neighbors’ first season, the team went 22-15 last year and upset Blair and his Texas A&M Aggies in the conference tournament. They lost in the title game to coach Vic Schaefer’s Mississippi State Bulldogs, but made the point: they are a force to be reckoned with.
Neighbors has been able to add his own players relatively quickly, as Sooner transfer Dungee made her decision to play for him in 2017, when he was still the head coach at the University of Washington.
“My last game at Oklahoma was actually against coach Neighbors in the NCAA Tournament.” Dungee said. “So I had the opportunity to play against him, and that really helped my choice (to transfer to Arkansas).”
“To not have to watch it on screen, but to actually play against someone like that and see his system up close and personal, it was clear that it would be a good system for me.”
Dungee is averaging 19.8 points this year, and was named to the SEC preseason all-conference team.
Neighbors also added TCU transfer Amber Ramirez, who sat out the 2018-19 campaign due to the NCAA’s transfer rule, but who has already led the team in scoring in a pair of games this season, and is averaging 13.8 points per game on 46 percent three-point shooting.
Like Dungee, Ramirez is happy to be a Razorback.
“Coach (Neighbors) is very genuine and caring.” Ramirez said. “His door is always open and he pushes us hard to be at our best at all times. I saw what he did at Washington and liked the fast style of play. I’m excited to be here. I think we will keep building and be successful.”
Neighbors’ third weapon is Arkansas native Alexis Tolefree – a junior college transfer last season – who is averaging 13.5 points per game and shooting 47 percent from the three-point line. She and Ramirez have shot an NCAA-best 85 treys heading into tonight’s SEC tipoff against the Aggies.
“We have relied mostly on junior college transfers and strong in-state recruiting,” Neighbors said. “We knew if we got the right players to come that it would be a great start for our program.”
This blueprint sounds familiar because Neighbors did the same thing in his four years as head coach at Washington. In his third year, using the same running style of play, he guided the team to the program’s first Final Four appearance. The next season he saw his recruit, Kelsey Plum, shatter the NCAA scoring record and go first in the WNBA draft. The team’s other star, Chantel Osahor, was an All-American along with Plum.
Neighbors was the director of basketball operations for Blair at Arkansas in 1997, and served for a year as assistant coach 10 years later. So when the school came calling three years ago after previous coach Jimmy Dykes resigned, the Greenwood native did not hesitate.
“When I got the offer it didn’t take very long for me to accept because this was something that I have always wanted since I was 10 years old, when it may not have been very popular.” Neighbors said. “I thought the timing was right, so I wanted to come in and do the best job I could for as long as I could.”
He renewed the high school contacts he had in the state when he was there before, which has been an advantage.
“I have built a great relationship with a lot of high school coaches over the years and it has been great to be able to keep up with some of the talent we have here.” Neighbors said. “It has allowed us to establish our program’s identity.”
Neighbors has already received a key verbal commitment from five-star, in-state prospect Elaura Eaton for the 2020-21 campaign.
Coaching in the SEC is already difficult due to the number of elite teams. But it also means coaching against his longtime friends Blair and Schaefer, who was assistant coach at Arkansas when he was the basketball operations director.
Both Blair and Schaefer told the Hog Podcast last spring that Neighbors’ success was no surprise to them.
“I knew Mike was going to be good, just like I knew Vic Schaefer was going to be good when I hired them,” Blair said.
And though the three are opponents now, they are friends first.
“He’s ahead of the schedule I was on. I don’t see anything slowing him down,” Schaefer said on the podcast. “It’s fun to watch a friend have success, and especially in this league – it’s so hard to do. Friends in this business are so few and far between. I’m just really happy for and proud of Mike. …it’s about building a program; it’s not just about wins and losses.”
Though Neighbors hired Osahor as his assistant coach this season, he is not seeking a match up against Washington any time soon.
“It’s not something I would want to pursue personally because there is so much history there,” Neighbors said. “If we happen to meet each other in the Tournament at some point, it will be emotional for sure, because there are still people there that I respect very much.”
In the meantime, Neighbors’ focus is on continuing to build the Razorbacks up.
“Our basketball program will always reflect the same hard working blue collar mentality of the state of Arkansas,” Neighbors said. “We may never get the widespread national recognition of a UConn, Baylor or Stanford or those type teams. We just want to be a program that is considered for the Tournament every year because it’s something we haven’t done in a while.”
The Razorbacks host the Aggies tonight at 8 p.m. CT.
Los Angeles – No. 10 UCLA ran away from arch rival USC Sunday to tie a program record.
The 83-59 rout, in front of a packed house, matched a 1980-81 mark for best season start, at 12-0. Michaela Onyenwere and Japreece Dean each scored 21 points for the Bruins, while freshman Charisma Osborne had 12 points and 10 rebounds. It was the first conference match up for both teams.
Dean, a senior, said she and her teammates are enjoying themselves.
“Every day in the huddle I just tell people to bring joy and have fun,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re doing. It’s fun to be here right now and have this record.”
UCLA got out to a fast start, as Onyenwere scored 13 points in the first quarter – more than the Trojans as a whole – to end the period with a 21-10 lead. The Trojans went on a run to start the third quarter, trimming their opponents’ 11-point halftime lead to seven at the 6:10 mark. But the Bruins punched back with a run of their own, and pushed their lead back up to 21 by the end of the frame. USC got no closer than 19 points the rest of the way.
Freshman Alissa Pili had a career-high 28 points for the Trojans, while Aliyah Jeune scored 11.
UCLA coach Cori Close said she was pleased with Onyenwere’s scoring, the defense of Dean and Osborne, and increased three-point shooting from her team. But she said that lapses in focus in the third period is something to work on as the team prepares to host No. 18 Arizona and Arizona State this weekend.
“At a timeout, coach Cori challenged us and said we weren’t doing a great job,” Onyenwere said. “After that we got three straight stops – that’s something we call a kill – so we got back to our defensive intensity and caused them to turn the ball over.”
USC has seven freshmen and two sophomores, and has had at least three players out with injury so far this season. Coach Mark Trakh said their inexperience showed against the older Bruin squad.
“There were times when we had five freshmen out there for extended periods,” Trakh said. “It’s a learning experience. We’re going through the brick and mortar days for our program. We’re building on this freshman class, and eventually we can be really competitive, but (that will come from) experience. We’ve just got to be patient.”
Trakh said the game was a wake up call for the Trojans.
“This was a great experience for our young team, and hopefully we’ve learned how hard you have to play in the Pac-12,” he said. “When you’re that young, you’ve got to really experience it. I think we’re better than what we showed tonight. UCLA is very good, very experienced.”
The Bruins, coincidentally, honored 30 player alumni at halftime, including Jordin Canada, who plays for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. Close said matching the program record on the day former players were there was meaningful.
(“Tying the record) says a lot about the people that came before us,” she said. “It is with great humility, but great awareness, that this is a special place with a lot of special people that have helped us.”