March 19, 2022 

How playing in the WNIT can help UCLA build its present and future

The Bruins endured a tough year filled with injuries but are looking to make a postseason run

LOS ANGELES — The UCLA Bruins have had a challenging year. After the return of a few players who missed last season as well as the addition of some highly touted transfers, the Bruins had high aspirations at the beginning of the season.

But things quickly took a turn as the season began. The injuries started to pile up, and the Bruins ended up missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. They did, however, earn a berth in the WNIT and dispatched the visiting UC Irvine Anteaters 61-48 on Friday night to advance to the second round.

The team is relatively healthy now, but its injury report used to stretch rather long. Gina Conti, who was supposed to play alongside Charisma Osborne in a formidable backcourt, suffered a foot injury in preseason that caused her to miss the entire season. Emily Bessoir suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season. Angela Dugalic didn’t make her UCLA debut until late in the season. Camryn Brown, who missed most of last season due to injury, also didn’t make her season debut until late. Brynn Masikewich, who missed all of last season, was only able to suit up in two games in late January.

At one point this season, the Bruins were down to only seven healthy players, and head coach Cori Close was left wondering how much more they’d be able to endure.

“There was a time when our medical team was like, ‘I’m not sure how much more you can go,'” Close said after Friday’s game. “Our team was like, ‘No, we can find a way, we got this, we’re going to get in there.’ And I just think they have shown me, but more importantly shown themselves, how tough they are and how they’re willing to say, ‘I’m committed to something bigger than myself.'”

Late in the season, the Bruins began to get a few key players back in the lineup. Dugalic made her season debut in mid-February and had eight points and four rebounds in the win over UC Irvine. Brown returned in late January, and she pulled down eight rebounds on Friday night and disrupted the Anteaters’ offense with her defensive presence.

While several players are still sidelined, the Bruins now have a complete enough roster to potentially end the season on a bit of a high note. The last time the Bruins appeared in the WNIT in 2015, they won the tournament. Close can see some similarities between that team and this year’s team. That group had a very talented freshman class, highlighted by future WNBA players Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.

“The thing we felt both teams had in common is they had to really deal with unmet expectations and disappointment,” Close said. “We thought we were going to have one of the deepest, most talented teams we’ve ever had here this year. Some things out of our control didn’t end up happening, and we really had to work through the discipline and work through the heart. I always say that you’ve got to lean into the heart, that pressure is a privilege and you have to lean into that if you want to make diamonds someday. And I think that both of those teams had to make that really hard choice.”

The Bruins sure rose to the occasion on Friday. They took everything UC Irvine threw at them and scraped out a tough win. The Anteaters led 18-14 in the second quarter before UCLA ripped off a 14-0 run that really turned the game around. The Anteaters would get closer a couple of times in the second half, but that second-quarter UCLA run ended up being the difference-maker.

Coming through in a big way for the Bruins were two of their departing seniors, Natalie Chou and IImar’I Thomas. Chou led all scorers with a game-high 19 points on 5-for-7 shooting from 3-point range. UC Irvine was in a zone most of the night, and Chou played her role as the sharpshooting zone buster.

Thomas finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds, really establishing herself in the fourth quarter to help fend off the Anteaters and power UCLA to a game-ending 9-0 run. It wasn’t only Thomas’ scoring and rebounding that was key all game, but her passing as well. She had three assists, and throughout the season, she has displayed the ability to play the high post and find cutters along the baseline as well as kick the ball out to open shooters.

After the game, Thomas mentioned how in the final days of the regular season, the Bruins had started to play their best and how it helped set the tone for a potential WNIT run.

“We thought we were playing our best basketball going into the Pac-12 Tournament and in the Pac-12 Tournament,” Thomas said. “We’re really just trying to continue to do that and take care of what we can control, and we know then that the outcome is going to be what we want.”

This is Thomas’ first and only season with the Bruins, as she arrived on campus as a graduate transfer from Cincinnati, but Chou has been on the roster since the 2018-19 season. She was a part of last season’s Sweet 16 run and is one of the players who has been able to stay healthy the majority of the year.

With her time at UCLA coming to a close, a strong showing in the WNIT is important for her not only to salvage what was a disappointing regular season, but also to set the foundation for the program’s future like the 2015 team did.

“We had actually seen a video a couple of days ago during film of that last WNIT team,” Chou said. “We remembered that Coach Cori said that team and winning that [tournament] really created momentum for the next couple of years. We just want to create and continue the momentum and create that kind of legacy for the next teams.”

While the WNIT may not get the bright lights and big coverage that March Madness gets, it’s still postseason basketball and an opportunity for players to showcase their game. Making a deep run in the WNIT would be good for the Bruins in any case, but one of Close’s main goals is to give the seniors this final opportunity.

“It’s a great opportunity for our seniors that want to go pro,” Close said. “This gives the seniors an opportunity to increase their stock, so to speak, and catch people’s attention. There’s opportunities for the now, as well as building things for our program in the future.”

Written by David Yapkowitz

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