Finally with a full roster, UCLA charging toward the finish

The UCLA Bruins had extra smiles after their win Sunday, in what has been a season that is anything but normal.

They came into the matchup after dropping a game two nights earlier on a buzzer-beating shot, for their fourth loss out of the last five games. But stepping on to Washington’s court, the Bruins had something they haven’t had all year long: a full roster.

Chantal Horvat. UCLA Athletics photo.

All 10 available saw playing time, and all but one scored. Top bucket-getter Charisma Osborne, who missed a game earlier this month after a knee injury, lead two others in double figures with 22 points, despite not being fully recovered.

“I’m super-proud today by how everyone played, and we will definitely continue to keep growing as we head into next week,” Osborne said.

As athletes have gone in and out of the rotation due to injuries, game lineups have ranged from 7-8 players. One of their recent losses was a forfeit due to not having enough eligible players available. Coach Cori Close said UCLA was inspired this past weekend by the return of starting point guard Jaelynn Penn, who missed seven games with a hand injury, and Angela Dugalic, who made her season debut after sitting out with a knee contusion.

“If anything else, it was an emotional lift to know there was someone else there who was another option,” Close said of the game against the Huskies.

The Bruins came into the season with high expectations, despite having six new players and two redshirts back from a year off. But Dugalic and highly-touted Gina Conti were injured prior to the season, as was 20-21 starting guard Emily Bessoir, who tore her ACL. UCLA has struggled to find a rhythm and an identity.

After back-to-back losses at a Thanksgiving weekend tournament, they fell out of the AP top 25 rankings for the first time since 2015. After a loss to UConn Dec. 11, the Bruins had to cancel or postpone their next five games due to COVID protocols. They returned to play Jan. 9, and have wavered between extremes, sometimes looking confident and in other instances, uncertain and lost.

Senior guard Chantel Horvat said the weekend return of some of her teammates buoyed the entire squad.

“We’re so excited to have people back,” she said. “It’s been a really hard journey for some players, and such unfortunate circumstances. No one wants to be injured, and we’re so happy for them that they get to step back on the court and play basketball.”

Horvat said the team has focused on “staying present” and tackling one game at a time.

“It doesn’t do us any good sulking and spending time (thinking about) the losses,” she said. “We’ve got more games to play, and things to do. We’re competitors, and we just want to get back out there. We’re fired up to play again, and we’re trying to stay present and keep that competitive mindset, and not think too much about the losses.”

Osborne said that when their spirits got low, she and her teammates found great support amongst themselves.

“I think we just lean on each other,” she said. “It does get really hard sometimes.”

Close said the challenge for the team, going into their last five regular-season games, is trying to integrate reactivated players this late in the year.

“That’s going to be the tricky piece is the chemistry piece, and finding rotations,” she said. “Offensively putting people in good positions, that will be the challenging part. Defensively, we can make a difference right away by putting pressure on the ball.”

UCLA is in Eugene tonight to take on Oregon, and hosts Colorado Friday and Utah Sunday.