Los Angeles – No. 25 UCLA ran past short-handed Utah Friday, 76-60, to sweep the season series on the last weekend of Pac-12 play.
Michaela Onyenwere tied her career high of 29 points for the third time this season to lead the Bruins, and she grabbed 13 rebounds. Kennedy Burke scored 19 points and Lajahna Drummer and Japreece Dean each added 11 in a tale of two mirror-opposite teams.
UCLA struggled in the early season to find their footing after graduating two of the program’s best players. They went on two separate four-game losing streaks – the longest such stretches in four years – before starting to click in late January. Since then they have won nine of 11 games, including a three-overtime barn-burner against Arizona and a takedown of then-No. 2 Oregon last week. This week they re-entered the AP top 25 poll after almost a year’s absence.
The storyline for the Utes has been very different, as they began the season 12-0 and entered the top 25 poll in mid-January for the first time in over a decade. They rose as high as the 14th spot before injuries began taking a toll.
In their first loss Jan. 4, leading scorer Daneesha Provo suffered a season-ending ACL tear. The final blow happened just a week and a half ago, when super-freshman Dre’Una Edwards, the third-leading scorer and second-best rebounder on the team, was lost for the year with a knee injury. Utah’s roster is now down to seven.
The Bruins won the battle of the boards, 41-29, and coach Cori Close said she was pleased with that. But she didn’t like what she called a slow start from her team, which featured 26.7 percent second quarter shooting.
“You can’t have halves where you don’t execute to your strengths,” she said. “I was pleased with the response in the second half, but it’s my job to make sure we’re playing to our strengths all the time.”
Onyenwere said her team wasn’t as focused as they should have been in the first two periods.
“We’ve got to work on our defensive rotation and execution,” she said.
Close credited the sophomore, who has stepped up to lead the team in both scoring and rebounds this season, with wearing Utah down.
“That’s what she does. She’s so relentless, Michaela is,” Close said. “I think sometimes it’s the mental fatigue that it creates on the other team. It’s really hard to stay with our team on those boards.”
Megan Huff led the Utes with 21 points, while Sarah Porter added 11.
Coach Lynne Roberts said it is a challenge managing minutes with a two-woman bench.
“It’s hard. We’re missing some firepower,” Roberts said. “Dre (Edwards) was a double-double (before her injury), and we missed her on the boards. It just sucks; you can’t say it any other way. We’re just trying to substitute constantly. You know, you come out for a minute to rest and then you go back in.”
Visibly chagrined, Roberts said the journey has been unexpected.
“I’ve never experienced a year like this.,” she said. “If you coach long enough you’re going to have seasons where it just doesn’t fall your way.”
The specter of what could have been looms large.
“We had all the pieces and we had those taken, so it’s going to be like a ‘what if?’ year,” she said. “It’s tough.”