They're still a work in progress, but Cori Close said a "next woman up" and "whatever it takes" mentality is helping the UCLA Bruins succeed. As they prepare to host No. 2 Stanford, the Bruins are learning a lot about themselves and how to win.
After an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign, the Bruins were unranked this preseason, which Close took with a grain of salt because she thought her team would be more competitive than what experts predicted thanks to. Her prediction has been correct so far as the Bruins have a 14-2 overall record and are ranked No. 8 in the nation. However, the coach knows there is still work to be done.
"I think in some ways we are sort of ahead of where I thought we were going to be," Close said. "I think our defense has really been good, but I actually think we have a long ways to go on the offensive end."
The Bruins' first loss came to No. 1 South Carolina on Nov. 29, but they kept it competitive in a 73-64 game that had seven lead changes. Their second loss came on Jan. 1 against Oregon State when UCLA's leading scorer Charisma Osborne was out with a left shoulder injury. The Bruins were close to a third loss on Sunday when they had to battle it out against a tough USC team.
The Trojans are ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 52 points per game. The Bruins won 61-60 at Pauley Pavilion, but they fell behind by 12 points in the third quarter when they went just 3-of-20 from the field. UCLA made up for a poor third quarter by outscoring USC 21-8 in the final period.
"We're still a work in progress. I think that we have a lot of different weapons and a lot of different ways we can play," Close said. "I think, just being candid, we are still having a hard time figuring out what our go-to things are going to be in the half court versus a really good team, a defensive team like USC."
Charisma Osborne, returned from her shoulder injury the Trojans, but had a rough game. She went just 2-of-16 from the field, but still contributed with nine points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block. She didn't need to dominate offensively because the UCLA bench took care of business and outscored the Trojans' bench 42-4. Freshman guard Londynn Jones was particularly impressive with 22 points.
"You talked about our identity, our identity is next woman up, whatever it takes," Close said.
Close also said it was also important to look at things such as how Lina Sontag and Christeene Iwuala did a good job disrupting USC sophomore forward Rayah Marshall -- who went into Sunday's game with five consecutive double-doubles. She registered 15 points, but Close said Sotang and Iwuala made it difficult for her to go off.
"That's never going to show up in the stat sheet, but I don't think we would've been able to make that run and hold them to eight points in the fourth quarter if those two don't do that kind of job," Close said.
The Bruins will need that mentally on Friday when they host the Cardinal, a squad that is 16-1 overall with their only loss also coming against South Carolina. They led for most of their game against the Gamecocks but ultimately fell 76-71 in overtime.
Stanford has a top-10 scoring offense with an average of 84.6 points per game. Tara VanDerveer's team is lead by two All-Americans in Haley Jones and Cameron Brink, who were last year's coaches and media Pac-12 Player of the Year, respectively. Brink was also the 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (coaches and media).
The Cardinal won't be an easy challenge, but it could be another good learning opportunity for UCLA and a chance to make a big statement. Although on Sunday she was still taking in how the USC game went, Close always keeps the goal of postseason in the back of her mind.
"The good news is we've come a long way, but we really have a lot of growing we still need to do if we want to make a deep run in March," Close said. "We are perfectly capable, but we've got to learn from each of these experiences and we've got to make some behavioral changes, especially with our half-court execution."