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Michelle Smith's Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Notebook: ‘Flexible is your middle name’

Dec 2, 2020
Don Liebig/UCLA Photography

One day, the UCLA women’s basketball team was 30 minutes from boarding the bus to go to Pepperdine before they were told the game was cancelled. On another day, they sat in their own gym, for more than an hour past tip-off, before the word of the cancellation came down.

“I’m 49 and I’ve had my rough moments with this,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “This is just a hard thing for young people to have to deal with. This is a really mature group and we work hard to keep them level and they have shown me incredible growth, but nothing about this is convenient or good or stable.”

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, the Utah women’s basketball team was shut down for two weeks before practice started on Monday, six days before their first conference game against defending league champion Oregon.

At Stanford, Tara VanDerveer has been scrambling for the past few days to find a place for her team to play after public health officials in Santa Clara County announced new restrictions Saturday that prevent her team from playing at Maples Pavilion. The No. 2-ranked Cardinal were forced to cancel Monday’s game against San Diego, which was already a substitute for another cancelled game, and as of Monday afternoon, don’t know where - or if - they will be playing their Pac-12 opener Friday night against Washington State.

Less than a week into the start of the 202-21 season and uncertainty reigns, not just in the Pac-12, but across the country. 

“That’s our new normal,” VanDerveer said. “I told the kids, ‘Flexible is your middle name’. We are waiting to see what we can do. Things change every minute.”

Even before the season started, the difficulties presented by starting a season in a global pandemic were showing themselves. USC’s women’s basketball team shut down for two weeks because of a positive case on the team. Arizona coach Adia Barnes took to Twitter to see if she could schedule non-conference games for her team. The Wildcats will have played only one game before they open conference play at home against the short-handed Bruins on Friday.

Adding to UCLA’s difficulties is the fact that two Australian signees have been unable to travel to the United States to begin their collegiate careers.

“The dominoes keep falling,” Close said. “But we know this isn’t going to end anytime soon, so we can complain about it and be energy vampires for each other and be frustrated all the time, or we can accept that this is the standard for sports in 2020 and take the next right behavioral step.”

VanDerveer, who needs four wins to become the winningest coach in the history of women’s basketball, said the uncertainty is the hardest part. She is continuing to work to find options for her team to play away from its home court while the county health order is in effect.

“Our kids just want to play, so it’s hard,” VanDerveer.

Close talked about her seniors, and how difficult it is to navigate their final collegiate season under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“I was talking with Michaela (Onyenwere) the other day and she said ‘I’m thinking about the future, and I’ve had the best three years of my life, but this is not what I pictured for my senior year’, and all I could say is ‘I get it and I’m sorry.’

“I wish I could solve it for them and I can’t. We just have to be there for each other.”

So far, Colorado has been lucky. The Buffaloes have gotten both of their scheduled games in so far.

“I wish we had 11 preseason games like normal, but I know everyone wishes that,” said Colorado head coach J.R. Payne. “We just want to keep playing. It’s like our men’s coach said, our goals are to 1) play a game and 2) win that game. Just getting to play is the most important thing.”

Utah coach Lynne Roberts was counting the minutes on Monday morning until she could get on the court with her team to restart the season.

“We did our best to keep our players engaged and not feeling isolated,” Roberts said of the time off. “Just another case of “the more we try to control things, the more we realize we can’t’.”