February 9, 2024 

Olympic qualifiers, medical absences force UCLA to lean on mental toughness

'That’s really the secret to our success: our commitment to each other'

UCLA kicked off the 2023–24 season on an impressive streak, to the tune of a 14–0 record and a consistent hold on the No. 2 spot in the AP rankings. They didn’t lose their first game until Jan. 14, when they fell to USC 73-65. Since that loss, however, they have gone 3–4, losing to Pac-12 foes No. 20 Utah, Washington State, and No. 6 Stanford, but beating No. 4 Colorado. The Bruins are fifth in the Pac-12, a significant turnaround from their near-perfect start.

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While some of these losses can certainly be chalked up to their immensely challenging conference schedule (the Pac-12 leads the country with six ranked teams), they’re also facing a massive personnel issue: the absence of 6’7 sophomore transfer Lauren Betts. Before being sidelined with an unknown medical issue after UCLA’s overtime loss to Utah on Jan. 19, Betts was averaging 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. She was shooting an astonishing 68.3% from the floor, good enough to lead the nation.

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Head coach Cori Close has confirmed that while she expects Lauren Betts to be back this season, her status is day-to-day, with no significant updates to date. Close told media on Wednesday in a post-practice press conference, “I’m not playing a media, holding back kind of thing. That is exactly what it is: day-to-day,” she said. “I really don’t know the answer to that in terms of a timetable. But she is day-to-day.”

Prior to Lauren Betts’ absence, UCLA was shooting 48.5% from the floor. They’ve since dropped to 38.9%. Yet, according to Close, while Betts’ absence has been more difficult to surmount on the defensive end. In addition to her offensive prowess, Betts was averaging 2.1 blocks per game, and altering countless other shots as a post help defender. 

“I think, without Lauren, it has exposed us more,” Close explained. “The work that everyone else has to do because she’s not going to be behind us covering, it’s forcing us to be better one-on-one defenders, more communicative, more aggressive further away from the basket, to cover for what we might not have behind the basket right now.”

To add insult to (undisclosed) injury, UCLA will also play its upcoming games without key post players Angela Dugalić and Lina Sontag, who will be playing in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Serbia and Germany, respectively. On top of these temporary absences, senior Izzy Anstey recently announced her retirement from basketball in an Instagram post, and forward Emily Bessoir has been out with an injury all season. With the loss of these five players, the roster’s median height has decreased from 6’3 to 5’11.

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With key pieces missing this weekend, and potentially going forward, Close will have to rely on posts with less experience, namely Christeen Iwuala and Amanda Muse, who are averaging a total of 20.5 minutes and 6.2 points between the two of them. When asked about her underclassmen posts’ growth, Close said that Iwuala has “become one of our best pick and pocket pass players, and she rolls to the rims. She’s one of Charisma’s favorite targets in the two-player game.”

Close also noted she’d like to see improved aggression on defense, while Iwuala continues to improve on offense. Regarding Muse, she praised the freshman’s offensive rebounding ability, but again, the immediate need for more physicality on defense. 

Even with the major decrease in height and numbers, Close says the main adjustment the team will have to make is getting past the “mental and emotional fatigue.” When asked how the Bruins can avoid feeling mentally and emotionally spent, she said the team relies on their relationships.

“It’s about what’s in between our ears and how big our hearts are more than anything else,” Close said. “That’s really the secret to our success: our commitment to each other, and how much we want it honestly.”

Her players agree. Rice and Osborne expressed optimism, with Rice sharing that she appreciates the chance to get back to “why we’re doing this, and […] why we love to play with each other and for this school. We’ve done a really good job of refocusing this week and I know we’re going to carry that.” 

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Earlier this season, the Los Angeles Times reported on Lauren Betts’ work with UCLA’s “Mind Gym,” referred to as “the program’s comprehensive mental conditioning regimen,” which she credited for building her confidence and getting her ready to transition into a more meaningful role after her transfer.

Close said that the program works because the players and coaches are encouraged to think about what keeps them from doing their best, and to remember that “sometimes it’s not about anything other than removing interferences,” and to be “present-focused.”

While Close and her players repeatedly harped on their commitment to relationships and effort, they also noted that significant strategic adjustments will need to be made, including frequent rotations of versatile players like Camryn Brown and Gabriela Jaquez.

When asked about how to ensure that stars Osborne and Rice can begin working more in tandem, both players and Close laughed. “That’s what we’re still trying to figure out,” they said. 

Another thing they agree on? When Lauren Betts does return, the team can’t lose the adjustments they’ve had to make in her absence.

“My hope is that come March, this will end up being a blessing in disguise,” Close said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to just rely on Lauren. … We need Lauren back and we need them to hunt for their shots that they’re really good at. We need them to be aggressive all the time.”

As for whether Close is more focused on the day-to-day or long term given her short-term and unknown absences: “The work begins before it begins,” she said. “The only thing you can do to affect what you want in the future, is to have a great day today.” 

Written by Cameron Ruby

Cameron Ruby has been a contributing writer for The Next since April 2023. She is a Bay Area native currently living in Los Angeles.

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