Michelle Smith WBB Feature: UCLA's Dean: Leader in name, leader on the floor

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The video captured a perfect moment perfectly.

UCLA coach Cori Close gathering her team around for an announcement, and then letting them all know that point guard Japreece Dean was going to get another year of college basketball, a fifth year granted to her by the NCAA after a months-long process.

Dean screamed with joy and ran to the other end of the court, where she was dogpiled by her teammates.

“It was an amazing moment,” Dean said this week, as the Bruins prepare in Albany for their Friday night NCAA Sweet 16 matchup against powerhouse Connecticut. “I’m still in disbelief that the NCAA decided to give this to me.”

UCLA head coach Cori Close found out about 24 hours before she made the announcement.

“She is a pretty tough kid, she doesn’t let her guard down,” Close said. “That moment was so sweet. It showed her passion and I was so thrilled for her.”

During the time when she was waiting for the NCAA’s decision, Dean worked hard to focus on this season at hand – one in which UCLA got off to a rocky start, and then found its footing in time to be playing some of the best basketball in the country heading into the postseason.

“During the process, I wasn’t too worried, I tried to focus on playing my best game,” Dean said. “Toward the end, when I knew that it was time to find out, I was getting more stressed about it. I just kept thinking that I was playing like it was my last year and I just keep thinking that.”

The 5-foot-6 guard from Austin, Texas transferred to UCLA from Texas Tech, leaving the Lady Techsters two games into her sophomore season.

She knew she would come to UCLA to play behind star point guard Jordin Canada, she wanted to learn.

And this season, with Canada off to the WNBA, Dean stepped into the role she’d been waiting to play. It wasn’t an easy start. The Bruins began the season with a 3-4 record and lot of questions about who would replace the leadership of Canada and Monique Billings.

“I had to prepare to be a point guard and everything that came with it,” Dean said, who is averaging 14.1 points and 4.9 assists per game and 20.5 points a game during postseason play. “And it was a little harder than I thought, leadership-wise, knowing my teammates and how to lead them and myself, in terms of body language … I was figuring it out myself.”

Close calls Dean her team’s catalyst.

“At the significant moments, she is so skilled,” Close said. “There are very few people who can keep her from getting downhill. I think the biggest improvement has been in her passing. I challenged her to up her assist numbers and she’s widened her vision. She didn’t come here as a point guard. She was a scoring guard in a point guard body, but she’s made herself into a pretty good point guard.”

Now, on the verge of the biggest game of her life, Dean sees the bigger picture.

“The biggest difference is our maturity and the sense of urgency we have,” Dean said.

It’s one they will need against the 11-time national champion Huskies, a team with two losses this season.

“We go into every game expecting to win,” Dean said. “I don’t think any games are upsets when we win. We fully expect to beat every team we play.”

That mentality was obvious in the second-round against Maryland, when the Bruins went in and won on the Terps’ home floor.

Dean pushes pace as well as any guard in the country. That pace will be critical to succeed against an experienced Connecticut team.

“It’s about having an attack mindset, finding the players I need to find and being the kind of leader people can follow,” Dean said.

A leader the Bruins will get to follow for another season.

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. She was just named winner of the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball.

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