When the buzzer sounded, senior forward Kennedy Burke turned away from the basket and sprinted toward the sideline to meet her teammates.
Burke and redshirt freshman Kayla Owens collided in celebration as the rest of the UCLA women’s basketball team surrounded them, relishing an 80-69 win Wednesday over No. 14 Georgia at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins’ chances for a victory appeared slim until a 31-point fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs (2-1) had a 10-point lead after the first quarter and led 40-31 at halftime. UCLA (2-1) cut the deficit to two after three (51-49) before outscoring Georgia 31-18 in the fourth.
With the loss of last year’s top two scorers, Monique Billings and Jordin Canada, Bruins coach Cori Close said her team has struggled to find its identity. She saw that most in her players’ uncertainty during adversity.
Leading up to the Georgia game, Close urged them to see those situations as opportunities to build grit.
“You’re never gonna be that good with an open hand, with five people doing their own thing,” she recalled telling them during practice.
After some early mistakes Wednesday, Close noticed how the Bruins exchanged eye contact instead of retreating. They hustled to huddles during timeouts and remained focused on the plays ahead, instead of ruminating over turnovers and rebounding struggles.
Burke turned up her defense in the second half and helped the Bruins increase the pace. UCLA forced 11 second-half turnovers by Georgia.
“I realized that there were a couple players on the team that were getting really hot,” said Burke, who scored 21 points, “and my teammates trusted me to just have more pride on defense.”
Sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere, who averaged 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season, led UCLA with 25 points and 11 rebounds. She said newfound confidence is a reason for her improvement.
“Proving to myself that I can do this,” Onyenwere said, “and I have people behind me that support me.”
The Bruins have closed practice by working on defense since a season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount, and the work came to fruition as they forced Georgia into some late turnovers.
The crowd for the game that started at 11 a.m. included many young fans, part of UCLA’s first-ever field trip day.
“The love they have for this game is so innocent …” Onyenwere said of the children from several local schools. “And we really appreciate that.”
As Close looked up in the stands filled with youngsters admiring the players, she couldn’t help but remember when she was that age, watching Stanford games while growing up in Northern California.