March 23, 2023 

UCLA’s twin towers crucial for tournament run

Not many teams in the country can contend with the Bruins' size led by freshmen centers

Catch any UCLA game and it’s not uncommon to see Bruins’ freshmen centers Lina Sontag and Christeen Iwuala in the game at the same time.

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In today’s game, where positionless basketball is becoming the norm and traditional post player and size isn’t necessarily a priority for many teams, UCLA is doing things differently. While neither player starts, Bruins head coach Cori Close often plays the pair together giving UCLA the type of size in the frontcourt that most teams in the Pac-12, and in the country, are unable to match.

It’s a bit of a perfect pairing too. Iwuala plays more of a back-to-the-basket game, while Sontag can often be found spacing the floor and shooting from the 3-point line. When they’re in the game at the same time, Iwuala is the one establishing post position while Sontag is at the top of the key delivering a perfect entry pass.

While it might be a headache for opposing defenses to solve, the freshmen duo have loved each moment they’re on the court together.

“I have such a good time playing with Lina; we both know each other so well, we’re both able to play off each other,” Iwuala told The Next. “I feel like the magic we have, it’s pretty hard for people to guard us because if I’m down low, she’s up high, and you got to guard her for the three and guard me down low. On defense in general, we can switch on everybody, we switch perfectly fine.”

Sontag echoes Iwuala’s sentiments. The duo has formed an on-court chemistry together that makes it tough for opposing defenses to contain. While defenses have to respect Sontag’s outside shot, that’s not to say she can’t play in the paint as well. She was tied for first on the team in total blocked shots with 35 alongside Emily Bessoir.

Lina Sontag, UCLA Bruins
Lina Sontag/Caren Nicdao UCLA Athletics

When both players are in the paint on the defensive end, they dare opposing players to drive to the basket. In the first half of UCLA’s round of 32 win against Oklahoma, the Sooners were visibly frustrated with the Bruins’ size and struggled to get clean looks in the paint.

“We’re always so hype; we bring energy, especially on the defensive end. Christeen brings so much energy and I’m just excited to see her play every game,” Sontag told The Next. “No one can stop her in the post, she’s just so strong. I tell her that every day, just go for it. I just love playing with her; it’s amazing.”

It’s not always easy for freshmen to come in and contribute right away, especially in such a tough conference like the Pac-12. The Pac-12 has its fair share of versatile, intimidating post players such as Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Arizona’s Cate Reese, Colorado’s Quay Miller and fellow freshman Oregon State’s Raegan Beers.

But the fact that Iwuala and Sontag have found a way to make a difference this season is a testament to their incredible work ethic, according to Bruins head coach Cori Close. After every practice, both players have stayed longer to work with assistant coaches Shannon LeBeauf and Tony Newman. Those results are starting to pay off as the Bruins keep advancing in the NCAA Tournament.


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“Their versatility, their not just bigs, especially defensively. We had to switch a lot of screens, especially in the middle of the floor,” Close said after UCLA’s win over Oklahoma. “It’s about what you earn and they have worked. . .it’s hard to do that when you don’t see the rewards right away. I’m just really proud of them putting in the work and it came up big. We always say the work done in the dark always gets revealed in the light and some of their work in the dark got revealed in the light [today].”

For Sontag, some of that versatility comes from having played a different position before she got to UCLA. She was more of a guard and it’s evident watching her on the court. She has a quick release on her shot like a guard and she’s sometimes comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making a quick move to the basket.

This season Sontag averaged 5.0 points per game, 4.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks with shooting splits of 41.4 percent from the field, 25.9 percent from the 3-point line and 61.1 percent from the free-throw line. Those numbers might not jump off the stat sheet, but her impact goes beyond the stats. Her presence in the paint and the shots she alters can’t be quantified by numbers. Against Oklahoma, she finished with three points, five rebounds, four blocked shots and two assists before fouling out.

As this season has progressed, Sontag has gotten more comfortable playing with her back to the basket and being an inside threat.

“It’s helped me grow my game a lot, it’s given me a new dimension having more post moves in my game,” Sontag said. “The coaches have been helping me a lot getting those post moves and getting those go-to moves. On defense too cause I’m guarding more post players. They’ve been helping me a lot like sliding my feet and telling me how to get in front.”

For Iwuala, this season has felt a little bit like being thrown into the fire immediately. She didn’t play much during her senior year in high school and she’s been expected to give UCLA impactful minutes right away. She’s more of a traditional post player with the ability to get good position while sealing off her defender and using her size to be effective at the rim.

Iwuala’s freshman numbers came in at 3.0 points per game and 3.4 rebounds with shooting splits of 40.6 percent from the field and 67.9 percent from the free-throw line. She did not attempt a single 3-point shot this season. Defensively she too has the mobility to cover a lot of ground. She slides her feet well, does well on switches and is always communicating.

“Being thrown right into this, I feel like the coaches have been really huge in the outside part of basketball,” Iwuala said. “Just talking me through, keeping my emotions in check and just holding me up to the standards to be the next person up. I feel like that balance between off the court and also on the court has helped me.”

While the Bruins have had preparation with tough interior players in the Pac-12, there’s really nothing to prepare them for the challenges that South Carolina and Aliyah Boston bring inside. Perhaps fortunately for UCLA’s frontline, they’ve seen her once before in a November non-conference matchup that saw them actually leading at the half.

Iwuala didn’t play in that game but Sontag did using up all five of her fouls while contributing two blocked shots and a couple of rebounds. For the Bruins to have any prayer of chance the second time around, they’re going to need production on both ends from their freshmen centers.

They appear up to the challenge, though. And as their development continues, they can make a case for being one of the top up-and-coming frontcourt rotations in the country even as the Bruins prepare to make the move to the Big 10 Conference.

“We still have a lot of work to do, obviously, as freshmen and we have to get used to the physicality of the game here. It’s very different from high school or like me from Germany,” Sontag said. “I think if we keep working on that, it’s gonna be unstoppable. . .we’ve been growing so much. . .we’ve been getting better at defending without fouling in the post. If we just keep growing that, it’s going to be hard for any other team to score on us.”

And as Iwuala put it, there’s no limit to what the duo can accomplish.

“I feel like the sky is the limit for us. We both have the mindset of just whatever’s best for the team,” Iwuala said. “With that mentality, I don’t feel like there’s anything that could really stop us from growing.”


David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

1 Comment

  1. Jose L Loera on March 24, 2023 at 6:23 pm

    Kinda of curious how tall each is since the focus of the article is the size they bring to the post. Didn’t see their height in the article.

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