Michaela Onyenwere truly arrived on the ninth day of the season.
After respectable showings in UCLA’s first two games, the sophomore forward unleashed the dragon against then-No. 14 Georgia in the Bruin’s third outing – a lunchtime matinee match up. Onyenwere scored 25 points on 11-19 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds – five of which were offensive – dished four assists, and had two steals and a block. She played all 40 minutes in leading her team’s upset win.
Since then, Onyenwere has scored 24 or more points in five more games, has notched five double-doubles and has matched her career high of 29 points twice. She made one three-point shot last year, but already this season she is 8-25 from beyond the arc, including two games of three shots – both career highs.
Onyenwere has increased her overall numbers substantially from her first year, when she averaged 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in 17.1 minutes on the floor. This season she averages 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. In all of last year Onyenwere dished 17 assists and blocked 13 shots; so far this season she has 17 assists and 19 blocks. She is the rebuilding-Bruins’ leading scorer and second-best rebounder by being a playmaker, a threat from both inside and out, and a burgeoning leader.
“Michaela has unlimited potential,” Bruin coach Cori Close said. “It’s fun for people in SoCal to root for her because she’s fun to watch. They admire her skill, and everyone wants to be around her, everyone respects her. She’s a great role model – very inspirational.”
Nineteen-year-old Onyenwere had plenty of shining moments in her debut season: three double-doubles, two Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors, and conference All-Freshman team. She was one of only two on her team to grab more offensive than defensive rebounds, with an 84-81 differential.
But Onyenwere was playing behind two of the program’s all-time greats in forward Monique Billings and guard Jordin Canada, as well as other veterans who guided the team to an Elite Eight appearance. Billings left as UCLA’s all-time blocks leader and Canada reset the mark for all-time assists. Onyenwere, who was a Colorado high school state champion as a senior, the state’s three-time Gatorade player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American, took a different role upon arrival in Westwood.
“Jordin and Mo were really great leaders to follow,” Onyenwere said. “I was a role player last year and tried to screen and rebound well. I wasn’t in a major role last year, but it was fun for me and I learned a lot.”
Close knew that would have to change, however, and before the Bruins took a summer break, she met with Onyenwere.
“She said she needed me to be somebody who was a go-to scorer,” Onyenwere said of her coach. “I took that and ran with it. She told me I needed to work hard over the summer, and I accepted that challenge. I worked on shooting, working out a lot and doing the reps and perfecting my craft. I also worked on increasing my confidence.”
Somehow, Onyenwere made this happen after working a 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daycare job.
“During the process it was long days, and working out after that was hard,” she said. “But I took myself out of that picture and looked at the big picture and realized that this is what my coach needs from me. Hard work will eventually pay off.”
She worked with trainers for her former club ball team, the Colorado Hawks. Theo Davis, president of the organization, said Onyenwere striving to increase her skill set was a deja vu.
“We got Michaela when she was in eighth grade, and she was extremely raw,” he said. “Coaches would call me during the recruiting process and want her to handle and dribble the ball better, so we moved her to the guard position. We have high-level player developers, and (that’s who) worked with her last summer.”
“The kind of athlete she is, you don’t see a lot of in the women’s game. When she works, it’s easy for her.”
UCLA has had an up-and-down season as they continue to find their footing, but Onyenwere’s play and willingness to step up grows with each game.
“With the points she puts up and the versatility she brings, she is an impossible match up,” Close said. “The other part is her relentless rebounding – especially offensively. She’s getting some really difficult out-of-area rebounds to the point where she’s becoming an elite rebounder. She reminds me of (Los Angeles Sparks forward and former WNBA MVP) Nneka Ogwumike in that she can be a threat to anyone.”
Close said Onyenwere’s skill set gives the Bruins options.
“She put in a lot of work over the summer, especially on her jump shot – the 17-footer and three-point range shots,” Close said. “She’s undersized but doesn’t mind getting in the post banging. Other teams have to use different strategies to guard her.”
Another thing that keeps Onyenwere in growth mode is that she is a student of basketball.
“She watches the game a lot too, and I wish more women watched the game,’ Close said. “I think that’s helping her. She watches the WNBA, NBA, whatever – she really loves it.”
Onyenwere’s teammates are taking cues from her development.
“Michaela is vital to us in so many different ways,” sophomore forward Lauryn Miller said. “I’ve definitely seen her growth in her confidence to score and her abilities involved. Seeing her attack everything so fearlessly this year, it’s been fun to see, and it’s huge for us.”
Miller said Onyenwere’s character influences the team, as well.
“Her confidence on the court also bleeds into how she cares for us and looks for us and cheers for us,” Miller said. “Her positivity and energy that comes from how fearlessly she plays is just enormous for our team.”
Onyenwere’s easygoing friendliness and always-present smile belies her on-court onslaughts.
“The joy that she brings is really special,” Close said. “I wish I could do that. She has the ability to be really intense and then put a smile on her fact that’s really infectious.”
Josh Ulitsky, Onyenwere’s high school coach, said that as much as her game is growing, she is the same young woman he has always known.
“As incredible an athlete as she is, she’s an even better person,” Ulitsky said. “It’s never been about the numbers for her. Even when she was on the bench, which wasn’t often, she was cheering for her teammates, because that’s who she is.”
“I’ve never had a kid with her talent. I’ve also never had a kid who was as humble and gracious. So many of her teachers didn’t know the caliber of player she was because that was the last thing she wanted to do was bring attention to those things.”
Close said Onyenwere’s team-first approach and her work ethic makes her a winner.
“The coolest part about her is she could care less about shining,” Close said. “She knew her team needed her to have a new role this year. She couldn’t care less – she just wants to be the best she can be. The great thing is she’s not assuming and passive about being great; her main focus is on being a great teammate. She is being aggressive, trying to get better every day.”
The willingness to go from star to learning mode as a Bruin newcomer is also paying dividends.
“She really watched Jordin and Monique and how they built their games. She really respected them and affirmed them,” Close said. “She really studied what this is going to take, and she had some moments last year of really stepping up.”
“She also honored (senior) Kelli (Hayes) too, and she took something from all of them. You could see how Michaela connected the dots in the offseason.”
Currently tied for eighth in the Pac-12, the Bruins will need Onyenwere to continue making adjustments.
“It’s different than it was last year in the way teams are scouting me,” she said. “I’m making different reads because teams are going to find ways to scout me. But I’m comfortable, whatever the system.”
UCLA takes on rival USC tomorrow at Pauley Pavilion, in the second game of the season series.