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UCLA tries to keep early NCAA tournament exit in perspective

UCLA coach Cori Close talks to her players.
UCLA coach Cori Close talks to her players Wednesday during a game against Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament in San Antonio.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

UCLA knew this season was going to be difficult. Before their first game, the Bruins had players suing the federal government and others opting out during a pandemic. The eight players who did participate couldn’t use their locker room or share team meals.

With the odd circumstances, players and coaches agreed to base their season on the word “perspective.” The tears flowing after Wednesday’s loss to Texas made it difficult to find that view immediately.

“Right now it really stings so much,” coach Cori Close said fighting through tears after UCLA’s season ended in a 71-62 loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “When we are able to look back and have some perspective, we’re going to have a lot of victories to count.”

UCLA (17-6) didn’t have any coronavirus-related pauses like several other teams in the Pac-12. The Bruins rose as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since 2017. Senior Michaela Onyenwere became the program’s first two-time AP All-American and helped form the team’s “More Than a D.R.E.A.M.” committee that advocated for racial equality.

The successes made the abrupt ending Wednesday in San Antonio even more painful. The NCAA regional semifinal seemed like a baseline expectation after the program had advanced to the second weekend of the tournament four straight times.

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The loss to Texas was a reminder of how difficult it is to maintain that success.

UCLA’s slow start prevented the comeback in the 71-62 loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament on Wednesday.

UCLA faced a 21-point halftime deficit after its offense grew stagnant in the second quarter. Long scoring droughts like the six-minute, 20-second dry spell Wednesday were common this season.

The Bruins had talent in Onyenwere and Charisma Osborne to compete against top teams. They had toughness. But they often lacked the tact on offense to win.

Close, a former UC Santa Barbara point guard, tried to implement a new offense this season to emphasize her team’s versatile post players.

It worked for Onyenwere. The 6-foot forward averaged a career-high 19.1 points per game. Osborne broke through as a sophomore with 17 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

But the pair of All-Pac-12 players had no consistent help. The gap between UCLA’s stars and its role players was painfully evident against Texas when Onyenwere and Osborne scored 21 and 19 points, respectively, and freshman Emily Bessoir was the only other player in double digits with 11. No other player made more than one field goal.

Texas guard Celeste Taylor and UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere chase a loose ball.
Texas guard Celeste Taylor and UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere chase a loose ball during the first half of the second round of the women’s NCAA tournament in San Antonio on Wednesday.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Bessoir, who added eight rebounds, might grow into a difference maker as the Munich, Germany native is suited for UCLA’s offense that Close said is inspired by the free-flowing game popular in international leagues.

It may also be a perfect match for Australian forward Izzy Anstey, who is expected to join the Bruins next season after pandemic travel restrictions kept her from entering the country this year.

But Anstey won’t be joined by longtime friend and fellow UCLA signee Gemma Potter, who chose to go pro in Australia.

Currently, Anstey is the only new player expected next year as the Bruins don’t have any recruits signed for 2021 after their one signee Dominique Darius enrolled early. Opt-outs Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson could return next season.

UCLA will need contributions from everyone to fill the shoes of Onyenwere, senior Lauryn Miller and redshirt junior Lindsey Corsaro, who are not expected to return despite additional eligibility.

Onyenwere is a probable top-10 WNBA draft pick. If she is chosen, it will be four straight years that the Bruins have had an WNBA draft selection. Despite the next-level talent in the program, UCLA still hasn’t won a Pac-12 or national title in 10 years under Close.

In an exclusive interview with the Times, Larry Scott, the outgoing Pac-12 commissioner, says it’s time to show ‘grace’ to the selection committee.

“The foundation has been laid and it’s time to make some other steps and to move forward but never at the compromise of our mission,” Close said, adding that the team will identify areas for improvement to reach a championship level.

“We’re going to relentlessly do that, but we’re also going to relentlessly create an uncommon transformational experience for young women that teaches, mentors and equips them for life beyond UCLA and that will never be compromised.”


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