UCLA women's basketball facing 'a lot of unknowns' in 2021-22
UCLA women's basketball has had more successful seasons during the Cori Close era than the 2020-21 campaign (see the Elite 8 run in 2018), but last year very well could have been Close’s best coaching job in her first decade at the helm. Despite only having nine players who played significant minutes, and at times only having seven players available for games, the Bruins found a way to finish third in the Pac-12 and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The COVID season hit the Bruins particularly hard. UCLA couldn’t get Australian freshman Izzy Antsey on campus due to international travel restrictions. Junior guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson opted out of the season. Add to that an injury to key rotation piece Chantel Horvat and other injury issues, and there was a point last year when the Bruins used just seven players three times in a four-game stretch – and won all four, including a win against eventual national champion Stanford in Northern California.
“It was probably the hardest coaching year I’ve had both in the emotional side of all the stuff the young women were going through but also the tactical side,” Close said at Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Media Day.
It doesn’t hurt when some of the available players included 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere and a top-five conference scorer in Charisma Osborne, but numbers that low can leave things dicey. Most practices, the team couldn’t even compete 5-on-5 because they didn’t have the bodies. Going 3-on-3 had to suffice. To beef up the roster, UCLA brought in Dominique Onu, who graduated from high school early to join the Bruins in the middle of the season.
In the face of this adversity, the Bruins went 17-6, racking up wins over the likes of Stanford, Arizona and Oregon and making it to the Pac-12 Tournament championship before falling to Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“The loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament was probably one of the most painful losses of my career if I’m being honest," Close said. "But as I’ve had time to look back and reflect, it was probably one of my proudest moments to watch that team choose joy, intentionally grow despite their circumstances. There were a lot of lessons that we were forced to learn that I’m going to hold tight to my heart and hopefully will inform me as a leader moving forward.”
Osborne, a junior guard who averaged 17 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game last year, took plenty of positives out of the experience.
“It was definitely very different last year not having as many players, but like Coach Cori said we spent a lot of time together,” Osborne said. “It was really good for me to spend time with my teammates and get closer to them. But definitely a great experience. It was definitely challenging at times, but I think we had a lot of fun at the end of the day.”
While Onyenwere is now with the New York Liberty, the Bruins figure to not have to go through a numbers crunch in the 2021-22 season. The cupboard is far from bare. UCLA has nine new players who weren’t on the roster last year. Antsey is on campus, as are four high-major DI transfers, including former Wake Forest point guard Gina Conti and former Oregon Duck Angela Dugalic. Although Emily Bessoir recently tore her ACL and will miss the upcoming season, the Bruins have 14 other players on the roster, the vast majority of whom can be rotation-level pieces this season.
“I might have to learn how to sub again. I didn’t even know how to sub last year. I didn’t have to,” Close joked. “I’m also such a big believer that you’re holding the standard to be able to say the bench is your biggest motivator. If you want to find your way into that rotation, there’s certain standards that you need to meet, and we just didn’t have that luxury last year.”
For Close and UCLA, picked to finish third in the Pac-12 preseason poll, the challenge moves from getting through a season with enough healthy bodies to finding a way to correctly mesh the abundance of talent that now exists in the locker room.
“It’s a lot of unknowns. Every day is a new discovery. It’s definitely a different looking and feeling team but I really like the pieces,” Close said. “Our challenge is going to have them come together."