New-look UCLA ready to get back to their defensive and winning ways

Dominique Onu is back and ready to lead the Bruins this season. UCLA Athletics photo.

The UCLA Bruins’ last practice the day before their season opener could be described as a flurry.

Sets of tough contact drills were followed by a series of scrimmages that saw team members rotate in and out constantly, amid smothering defense by practice players. Every possession was competitive, every basket was celebrated, and the pace never slowed.

It is a revamped roster that looks a lot like the Bruins of before the pandemic.

“It’s that kind of group that I never have to beg them to get them to the gym,” coach Cori Close said. “They’re a really good group. In fact, if anything, I’m like, hey, I want you to rest more.”

The grittiness of a nearly-complete roster this fall is a contrast to the past two seasons. In 2020-2021, UCLA carried eight players due to COVID-opt outs, and that sometimes got as low as six, as personnel stepped in and out due to injuries.

Last season began with the loss of returning starter Emily Bessoir and grad transfer Gina Conti to injury, and saw the Bruins struggle with focus and energy level throughout conference play. Returning starters Charisma Osborne and Dominique Onu were also hobbled by injuries, and after falling out of the top 25 early in the season for the first time in more than five years, UCLA failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

Forward Angela Dugalic tore her ACL last month playing in Serbia, and will miss the season. But with an otherwise healthy slate, and the addition of the nation’s top draft class, the squad from Westwood could surprise this season.

“We could do something that hasn’t been done since 1978,” Close told the team Sunday, referring to the Bruins’ AIAW Championship, four years before the women’s NCAA Tournament began.

Close wore her “road to the (Dallas) Final Four” hat to practice as a point of reference.

“If that’s what you want, I should see it in your process, I should see it in your habits, I should see it in your sacrifices,” she said. “That’s all I want them to focus on.”

Charisma Osborne begins her drive up the court. Sue Favor photo.

Osborne – the team’s top scorer and emotional leader last year – is rehabilitated from a serious knee injury sustained late in the season. Coaches say that not only is she back to her speedy self, but she has become a more vocal leader. Osborne said she is ready for the season.

“I am very motivated and excited, and I think the whole team is – not just me,” she said. “We know how it felt last year to not make the tournament, and I know I never want to have that feeling again. This experience from the past year is just giving us more momentum this year, and helping us want to win.”

Onu, who came to Westwood in January, 2020, after graduating from high school early, saw limited playing time last season with nagging injuries. The striking change this fall in her conditioning, her confidence, her initiative and her willingness to speak up is by design.

“I really focused on not just getting stronger physically, but mentally, how can I become stronger?” Onu said. “This year I took time out to really build my mental strength, learn how to push through fatigue and adversity, and find ways in practice to get better.”

“Physically, I’ve been in the gym a lot more, and the weight room was my best friend. I’m much more stronger and physical now because of the time I’ve put in.”

Close said Onu is poised to have a breakout year.

“I think she already has, in a way,” Close said.

Emily Bessoir looks for a passing outlet. Sue Favor photo.

Besides Osborne and Onu, senior Camryn Brown is the only other Bruin to have played significant minutes last year, as four starters graduated. The team will be leaning on their five freshmen to carry some of the load, starting with No. 2 recruit Kiki Rice, who last week became the first collegiate athlete to sign an NIL deal with Jordan Brand.

In UCLA’s weekend practice, Rice showed flashes of brilliance in moments when she beat the defense to score, or made a key pass to a teammate. Close appreciates what she brings on and off the court.

“She’s the most highly-decorated player we’ve had here, but she’s also one of the most humble,” Close said.

Rice is aligning her skill set with the team, as they try to build chemistry. And she’s also stepping up, as much will be expected of her.

“My strength is attacking the basket and getting downhill, breaking down the defense,” Rice said. “I love to draw defenders….I love driving, creating for myself and my teammates. We have a ton of great shooters. I’m definitely growing into just being more vocal out there.”

Close plans to start Osborne, Onu, Brown, Bessoir and Rice today, but said the starting lineup will be fluid, as athletes develop. She expects Conti to be a contributor, as well as freshmen Christeen Iwuala, Londynn Jones and Lina Sontag.

“Our matchups will depend on our growth curve, and I really think we’re gonna have a lot of different ones,” Close said. “I told them to hold the starting lineup very loosely.”

The last top class at UCLA yielded Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, who have gone on to have successful careers in the WNBA. But in their freshman year, in the fall of 2014, Close filled their calendar with ranked opponents, and they lost several games in a row before gaining their footing. She said she’s been careful not to repeat that mistake.

Coach Cori Close has a word with freshman Kiki Rice. Sue Favor photo.

“I’ve learned some valuable lessons,” Close said. “I overscheduled with (that) class when they came in. But…..I actually do think that has helped me become a better coach for this particular group.”

She said she appreciates the newcomers’ honesty and work ethic.

“One of the things that they do really, really well is they have a great balance of having unshakeable confidence and competitive spirit. I don’t think they’re afraid to step into whatever role is going to help our team win.”

“At the same time, they’re not afraid to also say, this is really hard and I have a lot to learn. I think that’s a really good, healthy tension for them to be in. It has not been easy, and it has not been a walk in the park for them, and at the same time, they are making an impact. I think if we can keep that sort of balance going, that’s going to be really key.”

Another priority for the Bruins is getting back to their trademark defense – something that has suffered the last year, in particular.

“We need to get back to dominating defense. We have to rely on that,” Close said. “We want to play up tempo, and in order to do that, you’ve got to get more stops.”

“Our versatility is going to be really good and I think we will shoot the three well. But it’s got to start with defense and rebounding. Last year, we just didn’t control possessions, which has been our calling card.”

Close said strong defense has to be the team’s anchor while they figure each other out and develop on-court flow.

“It’s going to take some time to develop an offensive identity to mold all these new pieces together,” she said.

UCLA tips off the season tonight at 5:30 p.m., as they host Cal Poly.