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UCLA head coach Cori Close knows her team had more potential than it showed during last year's injury plagued season. It's easy to ask "what if," but Close hopes the struggles they faced can push them in the right direction this year.

"I think you have a choice. There are growth areas and things to learn from every circumstance," she said. "I think we had a chance to be a championship level team if we had stayed healthy all year. I can't focus on that, but I can focus on the things it taught us."

The Bruins finished the 2021-22 campaign with an 18-13 overall record and an appearance in the WNIT semifinals. UCLA had not missed an NCAA tournament since 2015, but the postseason run in the WNIT was a solid achievement considering the lack of continuity due to injuries. Only four players appeared in all of the first 19 games last season. 

One of the players who missed significant time was Angela Dugalic. The 6-foot-4 forward was a five-star recruit who played for Oregon through the 2020-21 season and played for the Serbia national team at the Tokyo Olympics. She had potential to be starter for the Bruins, but didn't make her season debut until Feb. 11 at Washington State because of a preseason knee injury. Unfortunately for her, she suffered another injury during the training camp with Serbia ahead of the FIBA World Cup. Dugalic had surgery to repair a torn ACL early October and is expected to miss the upcoming season.

Another player who could've made a difference last year is Gina Conti, a former starter at Wake Forest. She transferred to UCLA in 2021 but has yet to play for the Bruins due to a foot injury. She left the Demon Deacons with 485 career assists, ranking third in school history and just 29 shy of breaking the all-time program record. Close said the grad student's experience will be valuable for the Bruins. 

Emily Bessoir missed the entire last season due to a torn ACL. The 6-foot-4 forward played in 22 games the previous season, averaging 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. She showed her potential by registering seven double-digit performances. 

Close said the last two years have probably been the hardest of her career, as the year before the injury-plagued season was the first full season with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the coach said that there have been a lot of good lessons along the way and that her focus is for her team to have an "I get to" mentality. One of her inspirations is a quote from men's basketball head coach Tony Bennett after Virginia became the first ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. 

"He said, 'adversity, if you choose to handle it well, can buy you a ticket to a place that you never would've gone to otherwise.'" Close recalled. "That's my hope from what we had last year, that the adversity, if we choose to handle it well and let it teach us, will buy us a ticket to a place we wouldn't have been able to go otherwise this year."

The Bruins have potential to be a lot stronger than last year, if they can stay healthy. They are returning leading scorer Charisma Osborne, and she will have a lot more help as others have shown significant improvement during the offseason. One of the most noticeable ones, Close said, will be redshirt sophomore guard Dominique Onu, who shot 41.3% from the field and averaged 5.4 points through 27 games last season. 

"People are not going to believe how much she's improved because of all the work she's put in," Close said. 

Of course, the biggest push for UCLA will be adding the top freshman class in the country, which includes No. 2 overall recruit Kiki Rice. Close said that there has probably never been a more decorated player arriving at UCLA, but what stands out the most for her is her drive and work ethic, as well as her humility. 

Rice will have a familiar face joining her in Londynn Jones, her teammate at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship. They helped team USA take gold and Rice went home with MVP honors. Jones is a 5-foot-4 guard, but Close said her height doesn't stop her from being dangerous.

"She is little but I think that's what's brought it out of her. It's not the size of the dog, but the size of the fight in the dog. I always say she has a dog in her, D-A-W-G," Close said. "She's got charisma and she's also not afraid to say the hard things to her teammates. I think that's something you don't see very often from freshman. She's not afraid to be coached hard."

Another highly-recognized name is Gabriela Jaquez, whose brother, Jaime, is a star on the men's team. She averaged 34.2 points, 15.7 rebounds, 4.7 steals and 2.6 assists per game during her high school senior year. Close said her statistics are impressive, but so is her playmaking ability.

"She has great statistics and people will talk about that, but she just makes winning plays," the coach said. "Whether it's an out of area rebound that someone else might not go get, a deflection that leads to the steal. She doesn't care, she just wants to win. I think she is an elite competitor."

Then there is Lina Sontag, a 6-foot-3 forward who Close said WNBA coaches have compared to Satou Sabally. Sontag brings in professional experience from Europe and can swing between the guard and forward spot. Close said she is versatile, has a high basketball IQ and is "tough as nails."

The one that will surprise fans the most, the coach said, is Christeen Iwuala. 

"She is unbelievable. She's got great power, soft feet, and passion for the game," Close said. "She is such a fun teammate. She is going to be a major impact player. She's the one people probably just don't know about, but she is phenomenal."

Last time the Bruins had a No. 1 recruiting class was in 2014 with Monique Billings and Jordin Canada. That particular group proved to be quite successful as they reached the Sweet Sixteen three times as well as an Elite Eight.

This season, Close said her team is deep, has solid guard play and will be able to play better pressure defense. She is happy with her team's talent but even more so with their work ethic and "championship level standards" that reflect in their habits. 

As the season approaches, the Bruins are trying to put last season behind them and not focus on outside expectations, or lack of, regarding their team. Close said she doesn't put a lot of stock in rankings, but that she thinks her team has what it takes to earn a spot in the top 25. 

"We are going to have a chance," Close said. "Second week of the season we are going to be playing In The Battle 4 Atlantis against top 15 level opponents. We are going to have a chance to earn whatever we want."