LOS ANGELES | Almost every college basketball coach has had to deal with roster issues at some point this season.
For UCLA’s Cori Close, it has been a constant.
Despite having only nine players, though, the fifth-ranked Bruins have emerged as one of the nation’s top teams. They are the highest-ranked squad in the Pac-12, which has four teams in the top 11. It is also the highest the Bruins have been ranked since they were fifth in November 2017.
UCLA (9-2, 7-2 Pac-12) goes into Friday’s game against Arizona State with a four-game winning streak. That includes road victories against No. 11 Oregon and No. 6 Stanford, who were both ranked in the top 10 at the time.
“I knew this year was gonna be a lot different just because of our situation,” said senior forward Michaela Onyenwere, a graduate of Aurora’s Grandview High School. “I’m super proud of how we’ve been able to be super resilient, how we’ve kind of handled it and how we continued to handle it.”
UCLA had two players opt out before the season started. The numbers decreased further after freshman forward Izzy Anstey and guard Gemma Potter — both from Australia — were not allowed into the country due to coronavirus-related restrictions on first-year international students. Sophomore forward Brynn Masikewich is rehabbing a knee injury in Canada and hasn’t played this season.
That has left the Bruins with eight scholarship players and a walk-on, barring injuries. They had their Jan. 8 game against Colorado postponed because they did not meet the Pac-12 Conference’s minimum of seven healthy scholarship players.
Close said she would have been surprised if her team got through the season without falling below the minimum, but also realized early that the lack of players was going to be the reality this year.
“I think it’s been the story of our year, but we’re not talking about it with our team. And we don’t talk about it in any situation other than tactically,” said Close, who is in her 10th year as head coach. “We don’t speak about it in the locker room because we just are very confident that we’re going to focus on what we do have and we’re going to focus on giving and growing every day. We’re not going to give our energy away to anything that we don’t have control over.”
Without being able to practice five-on-five, Close said there have been more three-on-three sessions as well as more individual sessions with coaches. There has also been more attention to film study.
“I think three-on-three helps so much, because when we do five-on-five, and we’re going against the scout team, it’s not as competitive,” said sophomore guard Charisma Osborne.
What the Bruins lack in bodies they more than make up for in quality of players.
Onyenwere, a preseason All-American, is fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.0 points per game) and second in rebounding (9.0). She is the only player in the conference in the top five in both categories.
Osborne leads the conference with 31 3-pointers and is third in scoring (18.6 ppg). Senior guard Natalie Chou is averaging a career-best 11.5 points and scored a career-high 28 in a Jan. 10 win over Utah.
“With the players coming back we had a core group that was used to playing together, so I thought we had a good chance,” she said. “We started workouts later than other teams, but we have taken most things in perspective this year.”
Despite not being able to practice rebounding most days, the Bruins are sixth in the country on the offensive boards, averaging 17.2 per game. They are also sixth in fewest turnovers at 11.4 per game.
Teams without deep benches usually begin to struggle during the middle of conference play, but UCLA hasn’t played two games in three days since late December due to other schools having to pause games because of COVID-19 outbreaks. That includes this weekend after Sunday’s game against No. 10 Arizona was postponed.
Close is hoping the Jan. 22 four-point win over Stanford provides momentum the rest of the season. She said it was the first time she has seen her squad play with any consistent rhythm.
“It was the first glimpse that I thought, ‘OK, they’re starting to do things more as a unit than they are a series of individuals,’ and I was pleased with that,” Close said. “As Michaela said earlier, we still have a long ways to go. But we continue to grow and tweak little things to make sure that depending on the style of play of that particular game, you can find a way to win and play to your strengths.”