Coach Cori Close was scrambling to fill the void left by the departure of Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, both of whom were drafted into the WNBA.
“There was not one player on our team to start the year that was playing the same role,” Close said.
It all worked out. The Bruins finally got in a groove and ultimately earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Now, after eliminating Tennessee in the opening round, sixth-seeded UCLA (21-12) will attempt to knock off another high-profile opponent, No. 3 seed Maryland (29-4), on Monday night.
With a victory, UCLA will reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth year in a row.
“I'm so grateful to be able to watch a group of young women grow from being doubtful individuals into a confident group that plays really well together,” Close said Sunday.
Many years ago, former Terrapins men's coach Lefty Driesell spoke about turning Maryland into “The UCLA of the East.” Close, in turn, is striving to build a program similar to the one coach Brenda Frese put together during her 17-year run at Maryland.
“Yes, I would love for to be `The Maryland of the West,“’ Close said. “Over the years I have watched Brenda and have gleaned things that I definitely want to make characteristics of our program as well.”
Close was early into a seven-year run as an assistant at Florida State when she met Frese, who won the national championship with Maryland in 2006. Close has long admired the fashion in which Frese recruits, establishes a rapport with her players and prepares them for life after basketball.
With a 171-98 record at UCLA over eight seasons, Close appears to have a consistent program of her own.
“I always knew she was going to become very, very successful,” Frese said. “You obviously see that now, with what she has turned UCLA into.”
The success of Close's current squad is a testament to her coaching ability.
“For her to lose two players of significance last year to the WNBA and have a team like this, retooled, speaks volumes,” Frese said.
Some things to know about the UCLA-Maryland matchup:
The Terps are delighted to playing at home, where they're 15-1 this season, including a 73-51 win over Radford on Saturday.
“It's a huge advantage, just being in our own beds and going through the same routine as always,” forward Kaila Charles said.
UCLA is 8-3 on the road and not the least bit concerned about playing on Maryland's home floor.
“Being on the road, it's a different vibe. There's more structure and we're around each other more,” guard Japreece Dean said. “I feel like we're more accountable on the road.”
Monday's game will be played exactly 41 years after UCLA beat Maryland 90-74 to win the AIAW national championship, a precursor to the NCAA Tournament.
“That's pretty amazing,” Close said. “I think it's really good to pause and say thank you to the people that were involved in those games, thank you to the people that really lived out Title IX in an amazing, courageous way. Now we get opportunities that would have never been there without their sacrifice.”
Take a number
Someone asked Close her thoughts on Charles, Maryland's leading scorer.
“What number is she?” Close asked. “The disadvantage of being on the other side of the coast is I'm doing all my scouting by numbers and very rarely by name.”
Told that Charles wears No. 5, Close said, “So versatile. Really aggressive. She's a tough matchup and is definitely someone who's gotten our attention in our scouting report, for sure.”
Though both teams are big in the middle, outside shooting could be the key.
Maryland freshman Taylor Mikesell set a school record by hitting 94 3-pointers this season, including four against Radford.
UCLA freshman Lindsey Corsaro knocked down four 3-pointers in an 89-77 win over Tennessee, including a pair in the fourth quarter to quash the Lady Vols' comeback from a 17-point deficit.