Los Angeles – UCLA used a 31-point fourth quarter push Wednesday to outrun No. 14 Georgia, 80-69.
Sophomore Michaela Onyenwere paced the Bruins with a career-high 25 points, as well as 11 rebounds. Kennedy Burke added 21 points and Japreece Dean, 17.
The Bulldogs got off to a quick start with a balanced scoring attack, led by Caliya Robinson and Taja Cole, to take a 22-12 first quarter lead. UCLA surged in the second period and cut the advantage to two midway though, but the visitors went on another run and inflated their lead back to nine at the break.
An Onyenwere-led surge brought the two teams to a 49-all tie with 59 seconds to go in the third frame, but Gabby Connally gave Georgia one more bucket before time expired.
Both squads traded baskets in the fourth quarter, and the 62-all tie at the 5:06 mark was the fifth of the game. But in the last 2:58, the Bruins forced six Bulldog turnovers, and they capitalized on each one. Onyenwere scored 11 of her points in the period.
UCLA coach Cori Close credited her team’s defense in the win.
“We did it with our defense,” she said. “We played player to player, and depending upon who they were subbing, we were able to sub accordingly. We practice making three straight stops, and that’s what we got to live out today.”
It was a very different showing from their season opener eight days earlier, as Loyola Marymount took a large lead, and the Bruins were unable to respond. Burke – one of only three seniors – had a message for her teammates after that game.
“I told the team after the LMU loss that we have to take more pride in our defense,” Burke said. “(Today) started on defense. A couple of their players started getting hot…..it was about us having good pressure and rebounding.
The UCLA defense was noticeably improved in their second game five days later, when they beat a tough Rice team. Against Georgia, the Bruins stole the ball 12 times, to four for their opponents.
Cole scored 22 points for the Bulldogs, while Connally chipped in 19 and Robinson, 13.
Coach Joni Taylor credited the UCLA defense for their win.
“They rushed us,” she said. “In the second half they became a lot more aggressive, and I don’t think we handled it very well. We had people shooting it from areas they don’t normally shoot if from. We didn’t settle in and never really got settled in the third or fourth quarter, offensively.”
Even more than improved defense, Close was most pleased with the newfound maturity her young team is already showing.
“I’m really proud of their confidence today, and the way they handled the hard things,” she said. “Their composure, their togetherness, the way they tried to execute the game plan.”
Close said she and her assistant coaches have talked to players about game adversity.
“When the littlest thing goes wrong, it can force you to push the panic button, and that is a part of every game – you are never going to avoid it,” she said. “So you might as well embrace it and see it as an opportunity to be more defensively tough, to overcome and to be more together.”
Players seem to be taking that message to heart.
“When a mistake happened I watched their eye contact,” Close said about the Georgia game. “I watched how quickly they got to huddles. I watched what they were like in timeouts. And they weren’t think about ‘oh that just happened,’ they were on to the next play.”
“We talk a lot about winning the moments and controlling your response. Events and adversity are going to happen.”
The Bulldogs rose into the top 25 last year and were tapped for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in several years. This season, consequently, is brand new.
“Last year no one was expecting us to do what we did, now this year there’s an expectation. so how do you handle that?” Taylor said. “How do you continue to get better when you’ve had success? Our conversation has been, getting better every single day, and how are you doing that. Because if you do what you did last year, you’re not going to have more success or achieve greater things. From an offensive standpoint, we’ve got to score the ball better.”
For Onyenwere, the game may eventually serve as a coming out party for a player who showed great promise in her first season, but who was playing behind two program greats in Jordin Canada and Monique Billings. She worked hard to improve her game over the summer, and said now she is focused on stepping up.
“I have tried to embrace my new role, and part of it is believing that I can do this,” Onyenwere said. “I have great people behind me, supporting me.”
A crowd of 5,113 cheered the Bruins on in the midday match up, due mostly to UCLA’s coordination with local elementary schools for “field trip day.” Several alumni athletes sat courtside, including Canada, Kelli Hayes, and members of the classes of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2017.
For their Sunday game hosting Seton Hall, Close said the focus is on continual improvement.
“I don’t feel urgent that we have to win, but I feel urgent that we have to grow and we have to get tougher, and that doesn’t end,” Close said.