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Pac-12 preview: UCLA

This is the twelfth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

What a ride it’s been the last five years at UCLA.

The Bruins went from longtime conference bottom feeder to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011, lead by rising coaching star Nikki Caldwell. But before the Big Dance was even over last year, the coach who lit fire in their eyes was gone to LSU to take a lucrative offer there.

Enter Coach Cori Close, with a long, successful resume from Florida State and UC Santa Barbara. But practices hadn’t even begun when star forward and top rebounder Jasmine Dixon tore her Achilles tendon and was lost for the season.

In December another starter, Antonye Nyingifa, tore her ACL. Freshman Moriah Faulk sustained the same injury a short time later, and UCLA played most of their conference schedule with seven or eight suited players.

To their credit, the Bruins fought hard with what they had. They notched wins over hotshots Cal, Arizona State and Oregon State, as well as Utah, Colorado, both Washington schools and Arizona. But by the end of the season they ran out of gas, and they made an early exit out of the Pac-12 Tournament.

This year, Close may get a chance to prove herself.

Dixon is back and Alyssia Brewer, a 6-foot-3 transfer forward from Tennessee, finished her year of sitting out, and is ready to go. Both are seniors, and both will be huge – physically and otherwise – for UCLA under the basket.

Nyingifa (14.7 ppg) is still a junior, and she returns, as does senior forward Markel Walker (14.9 ppg, 11 rpg), junior guard Thea Lemberger (12 ppg) and senior point guard Mariah Williams (4.6 ppg).

The Bruins also have three talented freshman guards: Nirra Fields, who was ranked twelfth in her class last year; Lauren Holiday, ranked 66th; and Kari Korver, ranked 100th.

Junior forward/center Corinne Costa (4.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and sophomore forward Kacy Swain (3 ppg, 2.1 rpg) have been tall underachievers, and with Dixon and Brewer returning, it will be interesting to see where they fall in the rotation. Junior forward/guard Rhema Gardner (3.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), the sister of last year’s leading scorer, the graduated Rebekkah Gardner, would also do well to step up.

Some of the rest of the roster is a mystery.

Faulk apparently left the team, as her name is no longer on the roster. Guard Alexis Perry, known for her injuries at Brea Olinda High School, didn’t play a minute last year, but is on the list this season as a sophomore. UCLA Sports Information said they won’t comment on the injury status of players for this year.

Something else the Bruins get back this year is Pauley Pavilion, which had been closed for over a year for extensive remodeling. There will be an open house this coming Sunday, and the women’s team will officially reopen the arena with their first counting game, against San Diego State, Saturday, Nov. 10.

Other major preconference opponents include Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Princeton and Texas.