One month ago, then-No. 1 Stanford came to Pauley Pavilion and beat then-No. 10 UCLA by a dozen points. Afterward, Bruin coach Cori Close had some blunt words for her team.
“I said, ‘we’re not the toughest team in the Pac-12, and if we don’t become the toughest, most together team, nothing’s going to change,’” Close said. “I was frustrated in early December…we weren’t responding as quickly as we could. I told them, ‘you’ve got to respond.’”
UCLA hasn’t lost a game since.
They handed No. 11 Oregon their first loss of the season in their next outing, then routed Utah. They outlasted tough, No. 25 Washington State by two points in overtime and, now ranked sixth, took on the fifth-ranked Cardinal again last night. This time they won, 70-66, by staying poised in the game’s final stretch and capitalizing on opponent errors.
Close said she has seen a lot of team growth since their loss.
“We were on a quest from that minute, day by day, rep by rep, to be the toughest team,” she said. “I’m proud of their growth in that area.”
The Bruins’ relentlessness in the second Stanford game really showed up in the rebounds column, where they out-hustled them, 44-31. Twenty-one of those rebounds were offensive, and 10 came from standout senior forward Michaela Onyenere, who also put up 16 points on an uncharacteristically poor shooting night. Sophomore Charisma Osborne, who has blossomed into a prolific double-digit scorer this season, lead UCLA with 24 points.
Exceeding expectations has become a calling card for the Bruins of late.
Since program record-holders and WNBA draftees Jordin Canada and Monique Billings graduated in 2018, the team has consistently outperformed predictions. They went to the Sweet 16 in 2019, for the fourth year in a row, during Onyenwere’s sophomore season. And they looked ready to return last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NCAA Tournament.
Coming into this season UCLA was short-handed, as two players opted out of the season, two are injured and two of the incoming freshmen are not permitted to enter the U.S. from Australia due to pandemic restrictions.
The Bruins didn’t convene until mid-September and have played with eight bodies or less. Further, that personnel has rotated almost every game, as various players have had minor injuries. Practices have been mostly limited to three-on-three play, and Close has said that much of her roster is not 100 percent healthy.
Still, the team has soldiered on, and they have remained ranked in the top 15 with their highest ranking in years this week.
“We never practice with the people we play games with, which makes what they’re doing even more remarkable,” Close said. “I always have a plan A and B for practice, and I decide once I talk to the trainers.”
Close, in her tenth year at UCLA, has emphasized to athletes staying positive and controlling the factors that they can.
“We focus on growth and joy,” she said. “There are so many struggles right now. If we can stay focused, (I told them) you can count on me to grow and count on me to bring joy to this experience.”
Osborne said the team has taken the message about attending to what is in their reach to heart.
“We don’t worry about (having fewer players),” she said. “We’re focused on the game plan and we’re focused on what our strengths are, and how to take away from the strengths of the other team.”
Close said she’s been hard on Osborne because she could see her potential.
“I asked her, ‘what’s it going to take for you to be the best guard on both sides of the ball? You haven’t done it yet. You can, but you have to decide now.’ And boy, did she decide,” Close said.
Osborne said her teammates helped lift her confidence before taking the floor against Stanford last night. Her coach said her climb to the second-highest scoring spot on the squad stems from Onyenwere.
“Mic is setting the tone…all the time, showing what it takes to prepare and play hard night in and night out,” Close said. “She is Charisma’s roommate, and that’s what sets the tone for Charisma’s ride is seeing Michaela’s example.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Bruins, who will face the Arizona schools at home next weekend. Close has been down this road before, and knows that staying locked in is a crucial next step in the season.
“(We must) stay focused on what got us here,” she said. “I challenged them after this game: We have said we’re doing to fall in love with the process of what it takes to become great. There’s a temptation to listen to texts and get on social media, but those people don’t know. This is when the real mental focus has to happen.”