The emotion wave for UCLA after the Bruins got knocked out of the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament was raw and unfiltered. Head coach Cori Close couldn’t hold back the tears as she tried to wipe away the droplets flowing down her face during a postgame press conference following the third-seeded Bruins’ 71-62 loss to No. 6 Texas.
“This is my least favorite thing to do each year, and yeah, it’s just really, really hard,” Close said in her opening statement after the game. “Credit to Texas. They did a really good job making timely shots and they really kept us out of what we really wanted to do in that first half and just put us in a situation where we were chasing. Congratulations to them. They earned it. Hats off to them.”
It was a shocking end to a season for the Bruins, one that was adjusted mightily because of the COVID-19 pandemic and following a year of social unrest in the country. Yet, Close pushed, prodded and motivated her team to become one of the best in the country. The Bruins were anchored by preseason All-American Michaela Onyenwere, a do-everything basketball player.
Just how good was UCLA’s women’s basketball team? Half of the team (17-6) defeats came at the hands of No. 2 Stanford and Arizona, both of whom finished just ahead of UCLA in the Pac-12 Conference standings. After losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game, Close and her Bruins responded with a convincing 69-48 win against Wyoming in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
What the Bruins were able to do against Wyoming they were not able to duplicate against the Longhorns. UCLA came into the game as the No. 9 ranked team in the country. That didn’t mean squat to Texas which held UCLA to just 33 percent shooting from the field (21 of 63). On the other hand, the Longhorns converted 51 percent of their field goal attempts (25 of 49).
The bottom line is that the Longhorns made their shots. The Bruins did not. As a result of their woeful field goal shooting, the Bruins found themselves looking up and chasing the Longhorns all game long. By halftime, Close and UCLA were in desperation mode with a 35-14 deficit. Texas outscored UCLA 22-6 in the second quarter after starting the game off with a 13-8 lead after the first period.
Celeste Taylor, who scored 24 points and had five rebounds in the win for Texas, said the key to the Longhorns’ victory was defense, especially in the first half.
“Definitely preventing double penetration,” said Taylor. “We were all in the passing lanes, we were sealing. We were covering and helping each other out, boxing out and trying to rebound. Once we found out they had four rebounds we were like we got to box out. From the beginning, coach [head coach Vic Schaefer] was talking about defense and rebounding. So I think that just going into the game, just playing together, helping each other out. I think that was what was working for us at that time.”
Despite being outplayed in the first half, UCLA rebounded the way a Cori Close-coached team does, scoring 27 points in the third period and adding another 21 points in the fourth to make the ballgame respectable.
As well as UCLA played in the second half, it was the first two periods that brought the Bruins’ season to an abrupt halt. As she battled fighting backs tears, Close was nearly at a loss for words as she talked about the resiliency and the strength her ballclub showed all season long.
“Right now, we’re hurt,” Close said. “I’m really proud of their fight in the second half. We won the second half. We outrebounded them by 15 in the second half. We kept fighting and believing. Proud of their response in that. But our word for the year was perspective, and I just think right now it stings so much.
“But I think when we’re able to look back and have some perspective we’re going to have a lot of victories to count,” Close continued. “I always say that the only two things that stay with you for the rest of your life from these four years: who you impact and who you become. Watching what they became and watching who they’ve impacted, they have a lot to be round of.”
At the top of that list is probably Onyenwere. What the senior has meant to Close and the Bruins basketball program goes beyond the stat sheet. An emotional Close tried to figure out a way to best describe Onyenwere’s impact on her as well and others around her.
“You don’t get many of her,” Close said. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and, God that kid is special. There’s not one person in our program, whether it’s an equipment manager, whether it’s an assistant coach, whether it’s me…Michaela Onyenwere shows up every day, works her butt off. She never has a down day. She shows up every day and she cares more about the team than herself. She shows up every day and absolutely commits to improvement and mastering her craft, and dreaming the biggest dreams, but working with a work ethic to match.”
If this was to be the last collegiate game of Onyenwere’s brilliant career, she tried her best to rally the Bruins to a comeback win. But that mission fell short when she fouled out of the game late in the contest. For the game, Onyenwere shot 8 of 21 from the field for 21 points. It may not have been her best outing but it was a gritty performance by Onyenwere.
Visibly overcome with emotion, Onyenwere put on a brave front as she tried her best to describe what this season has looked like for herself and her teammates.
“It was just really tough this year,” Onyenwere said. “This year was nothing anybody expected. We had a lot of ups and downs. We had a lot of adversity, but I think that our team continued to just be tough and fight through all the adversity. We talked about that a lot in practice every single day, in games, and just finding ways to switch your perspective and be tough. So I think that we’ve learned a lot from this season even though it ended this way. I think we learned a lot this season and ended up better because of it.”
Featured Image: SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 24: The University of Texas, Austin takes on the University of California, Los Angeles during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament held at Alamodome on March 24, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos)