Michelle Smith Feature: UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere finds her stride

Michaela Onyenwere came into college basketball year and admitted she was not confident. And confidence, it turns out, it very important to Onyenwere's story.

“The difference between high school and college are two different realms,” said the UCLA sophomore forward from Aurora, Colo. “It was super hard to adjust. It was really hard for me.”

Onyenwere said she felt hesitant and unsure. About everything.

“To score, to shoot, just to do things,” Onyenwere said.

One year later, everything has changed. Onyenwere is stepping up and stepping in to fill the gap left by the graduation of two of the greatest players in program history – Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.

Onyenwere might be an undersized forward, barely 6-feet tall, but her contributions to a rapidly improving Bruins squad are growing in importance with every game. Onyenwere pulled off a career-high 29 points in last Friday night’s overtime win at Cal. She followed with a double-double (11 points and 12 rebounds) in a close loss to sixth-ranked Stanford.

UCLA, rebounding from a difficult four-game losing streak to win six of seven heading into a big weekend against Oregon State and Oregon at Pauley Pavilion.

“We are finally finding our identity and our rhythm,” Onyenwere said. “We just need to continue to get better and find a way to win games. Jordin and Mo were great players for us, and great leaders, but we knew going into this year that more people were going to have to step up and take on different roles.”

Bruins coach Cori Close took each of the returning UCLA players aside before they left for the offseason and told them what she would need from them this season.

“She told me I was going to have to be somewhat of a go-to scorer and player,” Onyenwere said. “So, I worked on my outside shot and being more confident in myself.”

Close corroborated Onyenwere’s story. Onyenwere averaged 17 minutes and 6.9 points a game as a freshman. More would now be required.

“I said, ‘Will you have the confidence to prepare to be a go-to player for us,' and she did,” Close said.

Onyenwere leads the Bruins at 16.3 points per game. She has hit seven 3-pointers this season – “more than I’ve never made in my life,” she said. And she has scored at least 20 points in four of the last 10 games. She has failed to score in double digits only once in that stretch.

“It’s no secret that if you do the work every day, add the tools in the offseason, play hard and stay coachable, good things happen,” Close said of Onyenwere.

Onyenwere has been one of the most consistent players of the season thus far, Close said, particularly as the program struggled through a rough patch of four straight losses.

“We have a saying in our program that the work that gets done in the dark gets revealed in the light. And she’s done the work.”

Onyenwere said she worked to improve her jump shot, her ball-handing and her leadership on the floor.

“We have these little segments, these individual programs that everyone does to get better and I’m very intention about that. It’s definitely paid off,” Onyenwere said. “I did things to expand my game and make it harder to be guarded. I feel like my teammates have more confidence to get me the ball and I have more confidence to do the right things.”

Because, as we know, confidence, for Onyenwere, is the story.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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