Like many teams, UCLA has a radically different roster from last year’s pandemic-altered season. And they are far from the only squad that is still finding its way, trying to fit pieces together in the first week of the 2021-2022 campaign.
But coach Cori Close, who has led the Bruins to three Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite 8 berth, as well as a WNIT Championship over the last decade, there is no excuse for what she called poor effort in their season opener against Pepperdine Wednesday.
The Waves got out to a fast start and extended their lead to as much as nine in the first quarter. No. 20 UCLA took a small lead twice in the next period, but the visitors battled back to tie the score at the break. The Bruins ignited for an 11-0 run to begin the third quarter, but Pepperdine continued to fight until the final buzzer, as Ally Stedman was left largely unchecked, to score a game-high 28 points. UCLA’s 78-69 win was anything but comfortable.
“We can’t put on our jerseys and compete like that again,” said a visibly flustered Close after the game. “We have a lot of new faces and I knew things weren’t going to be synergistic…..Pepperdine out-competed us, out-hustled us, and ultimately, that’s something we’ve got to fix really fast.”
Bright spots for the Bruins were 24 points from junior guard Charisma Osborne – one of just two returning starters – and grad transfer Iimar’i Thomas’ 21 points. What was missing was the team’s trademark defense, and offensive rebounds.
“We didn’t uphold the standard,” Osborne said. “We have to do a better job of upholding the standard.”
Last year UCLA was one of the NCAA’s most unlucky teams, as pandemic opt-outs and international travel restrictions left them with just eight on the roster. As players cycled through minor injuries, sometimes the number available to play on gameday was six or seven.
This season all 15 spots on the bench are filled. But the number of newcomers, as well as some late training camp injuries, have complicated things.
Osborne and fifth-year senior Natalie Chou return to the starting lineup. A few weeks ago returner Emily Bessoir, who was critical to the Bruins’ second-round Tournament run last season, was lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Redshirt senior Chantel Horvat is out for a few weeks with injury, as are transfers Gina Conti and Angela Dugalic. Conti was set to start at point guard, so Osborne will take that role on again for now, though she is a shooting guard.
Returning from a year out is senior Kayla Owens, who started the first game, and senior Kiara Jefferson. Also back is Donimique Onu, Brynn Masikewich, Camryn Brown and Iliana Sigal. Australian recruit Izzy Anstey was able to come to the U.S. this summer. Grad transfers Thomas and Jaelynn Penn started against the Waves, and are projected to remain in the beginning five.
Prior to their opener, Close said both she and her players were still trying to get to know one another.
“We’re evolving…we’re trying to become a unit rather than a sum total of talented pieces,” she said. “And we’re not there.”
UCLA will have to compensate for the loss of Michaela Onyenwere, who was named WNBA rookie of the year in 2021, and Lauryn Miller, on the boards. Close called Penn an elite defender, and commended Thomas for her versatility, calling her “a walking bucket.”
“Iimar’i is a great offensive player,” Close said. “She can attack the basket, she can shoot the three. Her challenge will be consistency, and helping her teammates know how to find her.”
Owens, who has not started until this year, played well defensively against the Waves, and brought energy to the court.
Close said this is the most talented roster she has had in Westwood, and she can’t wait for everyone to be healthy.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting it day by day,” she said. “We get 4-8 possessions better every week.”
Outside of their typical anchors of playing position-less basketball, spreading the floor and playing solid defense, Close said it remains to be seen what the Bruins’ other calling cards may be.
“We’ve got a ways to go to tell what will be the rallying cry of the team,” she said.
One thing Close is excited about is the experience on this year’s roster.
“The veterans have experienced ups and downs and the grind that comes with the season,” she said. “They’re all veterans and they have that maturity.”
But Close said the team needs to improve its attitude, effort and concentration before facing CSUN, and then Virginia, next week.
“I’m disappointed at them for not controlling the controllables,” she said after the Pepperdine matchup. “I hope they’ll remember the work they put in Performance equals potential, and our potential wasn’t the problem. We’ve got to figure out what these interferences are.”