UCLA dances into the Sweet 16, first time since 2019
LOS ANGELES — When it comes to getting her team ready, UCLA coach Cori Close stresses mental preparation as much as making sure her players know their assignments.
During the season, Close motivated them with the quote "Everything you want is on the other side of hard” from Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams.
Over the past couple of weeks, though, Close has turned to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” to inspire her team to be at their best during March Madness. The impromptu dance parties before practice have relaxed the young Bruins as they've advanced to their first Sweet 16 in four years. UCLA (26-9) will face top-seeded South Carolina (34-0) on Saturday in a Greenville 1 Regional semifinal.
“I don’t want them to play tight," Close said. "I want them to play free. I want them to play focused, and I want them to play with great gratitude and joy.”
Close began stressing more joy after a painful loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament final. The Bruins advanced to the championship game after beating top-seeded Stanford in the semifinals but Close saw her players put more pressure on themselves leading up to the final.
"I wish I had handled the day before the championship game differently. I learned about them that I don’t need to motivate them to work hard. This is a hard-working group. I know they want it,” Close said. “The 48 hours between when we played -- won in the semi-final and playing in the finals — we got tense. We didn’t play our best basketball in the final. As the day went on, we were putting more and more pressure on ourselves. I think that was a conscious choice on the staff’s part.
“If we kept preparing with great focus, then we needed to bring great joy. I think that balance is really important.”
So as the Bruins huddled at center court last Friday before practice, Gabriela Jaquez started things off with a couple of moves in the center of the famed UCLA circle at Pauley Pavilion. Emily Bessior and Christeen Iwuala followed before teammates and coaches started chanting, “We want Kiki.” Freshman Kiki Rice took a brief step back from the circle before giving in and dancing into the center while everyone applauded.
“That was her example of having us dance to just show that it’s fun,” senior guard Gina Conti said. “We worked hard to get here. It’s okay to be present, enjoy the moment, and take those feelings (of pressure) you’re feeling to flip them to be good for you.”
This season has been as much of a learning process for Close as for her players. UCLA missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2015 but there was the anticipation of a turnaround with the nation’s top-ranked signing class coming in. The group included Rice, the 2022 National High School Player of the Year.
The Bruins began the season unranked but got as high as eighth in January. They went 4-5 during a stretch late in conference play, which put them in danger of not hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But three wins in the Pac-12 Tournament got UCLA a fourth seed in the Greenville 1 Regional and the opportunity to play at home the first two rounds.
UCLA looked like it was about to succumb to pressure during the third quarter of Monday night’s second-round game against Oklahoma. The Bruins raced out to an 18-point lead during the first half but the Sooners went on a 22-3 run during the third quarter to grab a four-point lead.
Charisma Osborne made a three-point play late in the quarter and the Bruins rallied in the fourth for a 82-73 victory.
“I think our identity is more solidified. We worked hard at that,” Close said. “It hasn’t been easy, but we are more confident in who we are and when we are at our best.”
Despite having to go cross country and facing the unbeaten Gamecocks, UCLA is going into Saturday’s matchup confident. The Bruins lost 73-64 at South Carolina on Nov. 29 but the game was tied at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
UCLA is also one of only four teams this season not to lose to South Carolina by double digits.
“We know that we held ’em to a close game when we played down there the first time, but we also know that we’re so much better this time around,” Rice said. “I think everyone on our team has grown in so many different ways and we’ve collectively gotten so much better. No lack of confidence going in just because of the No. 1 seed.”