March 25, 2023 

Takeaways from a bittersweet end to a UCLA season

'Sometimes you, sometimes me, always us'

GREENVILLE, S.C. — In Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the South Carolina FAMs’ chants were prominent. But on Saturday afternoon, they did not drown out the screams, cheers, and chants from the UCLA Bruins faithful who made the trip from the West Coast. UCLA’s run in March Madness may have come to a close with a 59-43 loss to the Gamecocks, but there is promise on the horizon for this postseason’s youngest group of competitors.

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Half the roster for UCLA is comprised of freshmen.  How were those freshmen able to follow the tutelage of their seniors and what will that growth look like moving forward?  

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The reflection period

In the postgame presser, head coach Cori Close was quick to reflect on this season, and the players she’s losing to graduation.

“This is always just so hard,” a clearly emotional Close said. “It’s like my least favorite day of the year, and it’s because I love these seniors, because I love our team, and you just don’t want the journey to end with them.

“I think about how they set the tone for our program, and at the beginning of the year they talked about the culture they were going to create, and it didn’t matter that we were unranked, didn’t matter that we had nine new players, that they were going to make sure we had great chemistry, we were going to have a growth mindset and we were going to invest in each other.

“And that is exactly the standard that they set, and that’s the standard that they held. We didn’t play our best game tonight, but I’m not going to let that take away the journey that these seniors led us through and the growth and the team that they grew into.”

In their first matchup against South Carolina, UCLA had the edge over Staley’s squad for the greater part of the game, before faltering in the final stretch. But in the rematch, South Carolina’s defense was on display from opening tipoff.

Close acknowledged that South Carolina’s combination of offensive rebounding and defensive prowess is unmatched. Although UCLA could knock down some shots when left open, the Bruins created fewer of them than in the first matchup. Freshman guard Londynn Jones used her smaller size to get around Aliyah Boston and Kamilla Cardoso. Senior Charisma Osborne was just as shifty under the basket and moving through the paint.

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UCLA was poised, too. In an arena filled with majority FAMs, the “defense” chants were heard loud and clear from those fans who made the trip from the West Coast. And even as players hit the deck from chasedown blocks and suffocating defense in the paint, Osborne and teammates alike were able to tame their emotions on fouls or no-calls.

“I think we just kept going back to defense and rebounding,” senior guard Camryn Brown said. “That’s something we knew we had to really hone in on this entire game to give us the best shot of winning. So we were like, okay, shots aren’t going in, but we can defend, we can rebound. And that’s, I think, what we were trying to keep going back to each time.”

But despite holding the Gamecocks to 25 points in the first half, UCLA could not get an offensive grasp on their game. UCLA shot 29% in this game, and just 3-for-18 from beyond the arc.

Who answers the call?

“I’ll remember this team by one word: Growth,” Close said of the 2022-23 Bruins. “When you guys were asking the seniors about their pride and what they have, you think about it, I think we were ranked eighth or ninth in the country Charisma’s freshman year and the NCAA Tournament gets canceled, and then the second year we’re in the bubble and we weren’t allowed to have — so many things going on.

“Then last year we had so many injuries and had such a difficult season that way, and so when I think about their persevering leadership, to stay true to what they wanted to grow into and become, especially with all the new faces this year, that’s what I’m most proud of their leadership is their stick-to-itiveness.

“They have led through the hardest four years of basketball. I think other people would say the same around the country. We’re not the only ones in that. But that’s really what makes me proud.”

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Her pride in her senior leaders was evident, but so too was her understanding that the lessons have taken hold in her returning young players.

Freshmen Kiki Rice and Jones both have seen extensive minutes, this season, averaging 28 (Rice) and 20 (Jones) minutes per game. Rice will need to grow into her potential as a floor general while becoming a primary offensive option. Jones’ ability to shift quickly against defenders helps her create her own shots and leaves her capable of getting to the rim despite her 5’4 height, though she needs to improve upon her 45.7 percent accuracy at the rim from this season.

The youth of this team does not limit its trajectory, in Close’s view. The lessons UCLA learned Saturday are a down payment on a future taught by the seniors and imbued into the freshmen.

“Every little thing is going to be a response to what this test revealed in us,” Close said. I’m going to have to do the hard work first, and I’ve got to really hold the mirror up first so that I can set the example for the younger ones doing the same.

We obviously have a very bright future. We were the youngest team in the entire field of 68. So there’s a lot to look forward to…that will be my responsibility, as a leader, is to dig in and really prepare us in such a way that this experience changes us and pushes us forward in a way that we look back and go, oh, that game -—as Tony Bennett would quote, that game, if we handle the adversity correctly, can maybe buy us a ticket to a place we would not have gone otherwise.

“The other thing I will always say about this team, and it’s been our phrase all year long, and it’s one thing to have a phrase or a motivational, it’s another thing to live it: Sometimes you, sometimes me, always us. And I will always be grateful to this group that it was always us.”

Written by Caylen Johnson

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