Tuesday, May 11, 2021
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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.

So many things to discuss

More on the draft:

This year’s draft was marked with surprises.

The biggest steals of the night.

Winners and losers of the draft.

Will Dallas’ haul put them on the sports scoreboard?

The Wings scored big.

The Sun got the one they wanted.

Here’s where 10 of the best players landed.

Chelsea Dungee was ready for her moment.

Michaela Onyenwere’s grandmother went viral.

Kysre Gondrezick’s journey from high school to the WNBA.

Two with Michigan roots were chose last night.

Shyla Heal’s dad and Charles Barkley are beefing.

Dijonai Carrington tells her new coach she predicted her draft pick.

Trinity Baptiste calls her selection a dream come true.

Kiona Jeter is the first Towson player to be drafted.

Maine’s Blanca Millan is seeking a tryout after going undrafted.

WNBA team news:

The WNBA and Nike have nixed the Wings’ new jersey because it excluded Black women.

Former LSU coach Nikki Fargas is reportedly in negotiations to become the Las Vegas Aces president.

The WNBA chaplain coordinator is sharing her story this week.

WNBA player news:

Layshia Clarendon is on SI’s new digital cover.

Sue Bird discusses how the WNBA can change.

NCAA news:

Three new members have been added to the Division I Basketball Committee for 2021-2022.

College program news:

The colleges and conferences with the most players taken in the WNBA draft.

Texas A&M has been recognized for their social justice work.

TCU has named their locker room after Zhana Medley.

Alabama has signed two transfers.

Temple has added three transfers.

Bradley gained two and lost two to transfers.

College player news:

Mississippi State transfer Xaria Wiggins is following Johnnie Harris to Auburn.

Former Iowa State starter Kylie Feuerbach is transferring to Iowa.

Liberty transfer Emily Lytle will play for Virginia Tech.

Old Dominion transfer Skylah Travis has committed to Missouri.

College coach news:

Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell is the new head coach at Sacramento State.

Portland State has promoted Chelsey Gregg to head coach.

Eastern Kentucky coach Samantha Williams has resigned to take a job at another university.

North Dakota assistant coach Morgan Paige has resigned.

WNBA draft marked with some surprises

WNBA graphic.
WNBA graphic.

Every WNBA draft throws some curveballs, but this year’s exercise saw a few more than usual.

Three 19-year-old international players were taken in the first round, and selections of three others pushed several projected first-tier picks into the second round, and obliterated mock drafts everywhere.

The Dallas Wings chose Finland center Awak Kuier with their second pick, and the Chicago Sky took Australian guard Shyla Heal at No. 8. With their 12th pick, the Las Vegas Aces selected French forward Iliana Rupert. All three athletes have been playing professionally.

The selections of Charli Collier, Kuier, Aari McDonald, Chelsea Dungee, Michaela Onyenwere, Jasmine Walker and Rennia Davis in the first round was expected. But the Indiana Fever’s choice of West Virginia guard Kysre Gondrezick with their fourth pick caught many by surprise, as she was projected for the third round.

Fever general manager Tamika Catchings said Gondrezick’s skill set made her stand out.

“She can play the 2 or the 1, and if we had to bump her to 3, I’m sure she could figure that out,” Catchings said. “What she brings (was appealing), in being able to have a versatile player like her – someone who can score. And also, to have someone who wants to be in Indy.”

Gondrezick transferred from Michigan, her home state, and lead the Mountaineers in scoring this past season en route to the NCAA Tournament. She hadn’t been included in the WNBA’s media availability, and learned she’d been drafted while watching the event on television with her mother. Gondrezick said she can’t wait to get to the Fever’s training camp next week.

“To see my name – I haven’t seen my name in a lot of things,” she said. “I don’t think it’s yet to hit me. That’s why I’m so ready to get to Indy.”

Gondrezick said her assets include her ability to finish plays, being able to score at will and her proficiency at pick and roll offense.

“I’m excited to see how my game will translate into the WNBA,” she said.

The Fever, which haven’t been the playoffs since Catchings retired as a player in 2016, also surprised by taking Auburn forward Unique Thompson with their 19th pick. The prolific scorer is the first Tiger to be drafted since DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Boddie in 2009.

WNBA graphic.

“I’m excited, I’m happy,” Thompson said. “The nerves aren’t there anymore. I’m just ready to go. I’m ready to get to work. (Representing Auburn in the WNBA) means so much to me. Auburn is where I started to build my legacy, this is where my hard work began, so it means everything to me.”

Thompson said she was first alerted to what had happened by her friends and family members screaming.

“I kind of expected it (being selected by Indiana), I had a long conversation with them on Zoom the other day and I just got off the phone with Teaira (McCowan), Victoria (Vivians) and a few of my other new teammates. I’m looking forward to getting there and getting started,” Thompson said.

The Los Angeles Sparks’ choice of North Carolina guard Stephanie Watts with their 10th pick and the Seattle Storm taking Texas A&M guard Aaliyah Jones at No. 11 meant that first-round favorites Dana Evans of Louisville, Natasha Mack of Oklahoma State and Arella Guirantes of Rutgers were relegated to the second round. Evans was chosen by Dallas with pick No. 13, and the Sky took Mack at No. 16.

Mack, who was the NCAA defensive player of the year, said she is optimistic her game will translate to the pro level smoothly.

“I learned to read offensive players – that’s been my game,” she said. “I read people very well. That’s why my defense is great. I don’t try to brag on it a lot; I just let my game speak for itself. I hope my game fits in well and I hope I make some type of positive impact on the team.”

Mack said she has already been working on playing both the 4 and 5 positions, in preparation for the WNBA.

“In college you had to play a certain position where the coach wanted you to play, and so ff the scenes I’ve really been working on that and trying to (make that transition) as much as possible,” Mack said.

The Sparks chose Guirantes with their 22nd pick. She said the wait to hear her name called was “terrifying.”

“It was just a bunch of emotions flying around,” she said. “I didn’t know, because you talk to coaches and they’re selling you a dream. So to….just be kind of left out on an island, I can’t say I’m not used to it, but it’s OK. God has a plan for me.”

WNBA graphic.

Guirantes said she looks forward to working with fellow Scarlet Knight alum Erica Wheeler, whom LA acquired this year in free agency.

“I’m excited to hear the knowledge she has for me, going undrafted and being a WNBA All-Star MVP (in 2019),” Guirantes said. “She knows what it takes to last and survive, beat politics. I really have a number of questions for her, and I’ve already spoken to her. That’s my sister.”

Guirantes said she thinks she will find her way within the Sparks’ system.

“I know LA likes to run up and down, they like to open the floor,” she said. “So I feel like I would just fit right in with the spacing and be able to score, and also just play defense, because I love playing defense, too.”

Another projected first-rounder, Stanford point guard Kiana Williams, went to the Seattle Storm with their 18th pick. Coach Dan Hughes said Williams is a player he has watched for years, and whose game he has come to admire. But he acknowledged that she would have to fight to make a roster that already includes veteran Sue Bird and solid backup Jordin Canada.

“Kiana will have to have a strong training camp,” Hughes said.