Reloaded UCLA poised to return stronger than ever

UCLA had nine active players on their roster this season, but eight or less were usually available to play due to injuries. UCLA Athletics photo.

Less than a month after their season ended in the NCAA Tournament, UCLA has rebuilt their roster with high-level grad transfers, signees and COVID-19 opt-out returnees.

Last week Iimar’i Thomas announced her transfer from Cincinnati, Jaelynn Penn came from Indiana, and Gina Conti committed out of Wake Forest. All three promise to make an immediate impact on a Bruin team that overachieved greatly this past year, despite being understaffed.

As the pandemic took hold last spring and summer, junior guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson opted out of the season due to COVID concerns. Australian recruits Gemma Potter and Izzy Anstey weren’t allowed to enter the U.S., and bench reserve returnees Eliana Sigal and Brynn Masekewich weren’t cleared to play due to injuries. That left the team with nine active players, which wasn’t enough to correctly run plays and drills in practices.

Different players sustained various injuries throughout the season, and were in and out of the rotation. That left eight or less available for play, and twice UCLA had to cancel a game due to lack of personnel. Sophomore guard Camryn Brown was injured in February and ruled out for the rest of the year. But despite those limitations, the team was never ranked lower than 11 in the AP top 25 poll, and ascended as high at No. 5 during Pac-12 play.

The Bruins, who were one of the few squads in the conference not to have a COVID pause, was the only team to beat both eventual champion Stanford and runner-up Arizona during the regular season. But in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, they fell to lower-seeded Texas. Coach Cori Close had high praise for her team afterward.

“There’s no way to put this all into words, this unprecedented year,” she said at the post-game press conference. “This team never had any excuses. Things kept happening and they stayed committed. I asked them to intentionally grow each day and to chose joy, no matter what the circumstances.”

“I sat there tonight and looked at them and said, you did your part.”

Thomas, a forward, was the Bearcats’ top scorer last year, averaging 23.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Penn has been a longtime starter for the Hoosiers, and averaged 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds before opting out for the rest of the year mid-winter. Conti was the Deacons’ second-best scorer, averaging 13.8 per outing.

They will join junior-to-be Charisma Osborne, who had a breakout year, averaging 17 points per game, and forward Natalie Chou, who also stepped up to fill gaps with 9.9 points per game.

The trio of transfers will replace All-American Michaela Onyenwere, who was drafted into the WNBA Thursday, forward Lauryn Miller and guard Lindsey Corsaro.

Owens and Jefferson will return to Westwood this summer, as will Brown and Chantel Horvat, who was in and out of the rotation with injuries this season. Emily Bessoir and Dominque Darius, who both opted to enroll early, will be freshmen again in 2021-2022, thanks to the NCAA’s grant of one year of extra eligibility to mitigate pandemic impacts. Anstey will finally join the team, but Potter elected to give up her scholarship and turn pro.

Also announced this week was the signing of Marta Morales, a highly-regarded forward from Spain. In addition, UCLA nabbed three commitments from the 2022 class: No. 15 Londynn Jones, a point guard from Riverside; No. 34 Paris Clark, a guard from New York; and Elena Buenavida, a guard from Spain. Jada Williams, a 2023 top 100 guard from Missouri, also verbally committed to the Bruins.

For a team that had to fight so hard this past season, the future seems bright.