UCLA players tried to discreetly reach for their water bottles. Cori Close sensed trouble.
Just as senior point guard Japreece Dean congratulated Close on her 100th conference victory Friday night, the Bruins doused their coach in water, drenching her brown hair and black dress in a moment she called equal parts celebration and torture. To her, the wins — including Friday’s upset over No. 6 Stanford at Maples Pavilion — isn’t what she came to UCLA to celebrate.
“I’m in this to make a difference in people’s lives,” Close said Saturday, “and the rest of it is just gravy.”
Close, a Bay Area native whose favorite part of reaching the century mark Friday was getting to share it with her former high school coaches, mentors and teammates who attended the game, goes for her 101st conference win Sunday at 2 p.m. against last-place California (9-13, 1-10 Pac-12). Now that she’s passed an achievement she didn’t even realize was approaching, the ninth-year head coach turns her attention to the same task that’s nagged at her all season: how can the No. 10 Bruins realize their potential?
Don’t be distracted by the 20-2 record, 9-2 Pac-12 play, Close said. John Wooden taught her long ago that records and scores don’t accurately reflect a team’s progress through the season.
Instead of focusing on the program’s best start through 22 games since 2010-11, Close points to the third quarter against Stanford when the Cardinal came back to take a one-point lead. Stanford crushed UCLA on the glass 15-3 during the quarter, including five offensive rebounds that led to four second-chance points. Defensive rebounding must improve, Close said, as does ball movement, attacking in late shot-clock situations to get higher percentage shots.
“I do think we have the potential but potential doesn’t mean a whole lot unless it’s actualized on a consistent basis,” Close said. “We could be a really special team but I think that remains to be seen and I think we have to establish a real consistent mind-set and character about who we’re going to be and I think that’s yet to be proven.”
UCLA‘s win Friday moved the Bruins into a tie with Stanford (20-3, 9-2 Pac-12) for second in the conference, trailing only No. 3 Oregon (21-2, 10-1 Pac-12). The Bruins face the Ducks at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 14 in the only regular-season meeting between the teams.
UCLA was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, overshadowed by Oregon, which played in the Final Four last year, Stanford, the longtime conference powerhouse, and Oregon State, which won three regular-season conference titles from 2015-2017.
Friday’s upset, UCLA’s first over a top-10 team this season, pushes the Bruins into the conference championship conversation, although they are even less concerned about that discussion than Close was about her 100th conference win.
“We just love to play the game,” junior Michaela Onyenwere said. Friday. “We love to fight with and for each other so that’s not really where our mind-set is. It’s just about getting better every day.”