November 30, 2023
UCLA hits a defining non-conference stretch
Close: 'I think I’m going to know a lot more going into the holiday break than I do now'
Heady days for the UCLA women’s basketball program are here. The Bruins, who closed out November at a perfect 6-0, are ranked No. 2 in the nation for the first time in program history, coming off a first-ever win over UConn in the Cayman Islands last Friday.
“It’s a balance because being the No. 2 team in the country deserves some humility and some gratitude,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “And in the same breath, I have to say to our team that it means nothing.”
What comes next for the highest-rated team in a highly-rated Pac-12 will be even more defining.
UCLA is moving rapidly toward a four-game stretch that includes a December 3 road matchup at Arkansas, a home game against Cal State Northridge on December 7, followed by a December 10 matchup against No. 15 Florida State in Uncasville and then a December 18 game in Columbus against No. 16 Ohio State.
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As UCLA gets closer to what is already looking like a Pac-12 gauntlet come January these are the kind of games that will tell the Bruins both who they are and how far they have to go to be Final Four contenders.
“I know we are good and we are excited about what we can become but we have a long way to go. We have got to stay hungry,” Close said following her team’s 2-0 performance in Grand Cayman.
The Bruins treated the 11-point Connecticut win as if it was something that was supposed to happen, rather than the breakthrough that it was against one of the country’s most storied programs.
“We expected to win and we treated it as such,’ Close said. “We’re not going to let our highs get too high and our lows too low. We want to recognize the areas where we grew and what we accomplished and they accomplished something that was a great mile marker for our program.”
The degree of difficulty only goes up from here. According to RealTimeRPI.com, UCLA’s strength of schedule is currently 142 in the country, giving them an RPI of 29.
Arkansas is 6-1 to open the season, losing its first game to Marquette on Saturday. A speedy and relentless Florida State team fell to Stanford 100-88 in Las Vegas last week, testing a solid Cardinal defensive team. And Ohio State is 5-1, its only loss in the season opener against USC.
UCLA is going to have to be as good, or better than it’s been to this point to thrive in a tough three-game road swing.
“I think I’m going to know a lot more going into the holiday break than I do now,” Close said. “I think it’s going to be really hard.”
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Offensively, UCLA ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring (behind Utah) at 91.2 points a game, also ranking second in field-goal percentage (52.1), three-point percentage (40.6) and assists (21.8). They are holding opponents to 58.7 points a game.
Sophomore Lauren Betts is leading the nation in field-goal percentage at 78 percent and proving herself to be a go-to scorer and rebounder.
UCLA has balance with five players averaging double figures, propelled the inside scoring of Betts (15.5 ppg) and the stellar play of sophomore guard Kiki Rice (who put up a career-high 24 against the Huskies), a career-best output by Gabriela Jaquez, who currently leads the team at 16.2 points a game, and the stability and leadership of fifth-year guard Charisma Osborne.
The ability to handle pressure will be key on this trip, as will a strong defensive effort, a part of the Bruins’ game that Close calls “sporadic”. She wants to see how her team will defend on the perimeter against a team like Arkansas, for example, that can put five 3-point shooters on the floor.
Jaquez said the Bruins are looking to “set the tone” for every game.
“We have a lot of weapons on this team,” Jaquez said. “We’ve had some dips in some games and that’s what we are trying to be better at.”
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Close said her team’s preparation is going to key to this important stretch.
“We’ve been really good (at preparation), and the next championship habit is sustaining that,” Close said. “You aren’t going to be perfect. I’m not going to say there’s going to be zero lapses, but we need not to have big swings..I think our team does a really good job, no matter who the opponent is, knowing what’s in front of us, and how we need to prepare.”
Close said she just wants her team to play with “gratitude” as they move deeper into a season that could be singular for her program in more than one way.
“Hopefully out of that gratitude we learn to be a really tough and together team.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.