March 31, 2022 

UCLA heads to WNIT semifinals amid some bumps in the road

The Bruins have shed light on some equity issues as they continue their WNIT run

The UCLA Bruins may not have had the type of season they were anticipating, but they still were able to make it to postseason play with an appearance in the WNIT. The Bruins have made it through the first four rounds of the tournament and are set to face off against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the semifinals on Thursday night.

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However, it hasn’t been such a smooth road from a logistics standpoint. Last season, Oregon’s Sedona Prince went viral on social media with her video illustrating the disparities between the men’s NCAA tournament and the women’s NCAA tournament.

This postseason, the Bruins have moved to the forefront of the ongoing inequity between men’s and women’s basketball. UCLA’s Charisma Osborne recently shared on social media that the team was split up into three different flights on their way to South Dakota, resulting in 13 hours of travel time.

On a call with media on Wednesday afternoon, Osborne explained how being at the NCAA tournament last season and being mentored by former Bruins such as Michaela Onyenware and Lauryn Miller helped her find her voice to bring such issues to light.

“Last year has really just opened my eyes a little bit and just speaking up about things that I’m super passionate about,” Osborne said. “I think it’s important to just bring awareness. . .it may not affect this group, but maybe groups in the future. Just bringing awareness to that so that people in the future could have better opportunities than what we’re having right now.”

The discrepancies between the NIT and WNIT are that the NCAA owns the NIT and thus the men’s teams are provided charter flights for any travel necessities. The WNIT is owned by a non-profit organization called Triple Crown Sports. Since the NCAA owns the NIT, participating schools are paid for their appearances. In the WNIT, participating schools have to pay to play.

While UCLA head coach Cori Close is grateful for the opportunity to get postseason play in the WNIT, especially considering the season the team had, she also wants to remain cognizant of the fact that the women’s side has additional obstacles to overcome. She’s told her team that this is what they’ve earned this year, but she’s hopeful that by using their platform to speak out, they can perhaps get the ball rolling for change that will affect players and teams in the future.

“This is the way it’s constructed, so they are doing their job, it’s not their fault. But it isn’t an equitable experience and to me, that’s what I have a job to lead towards. It won’t obviously affect this group, but for future generations,” Close said. “I think that should give people pause in terms of equity. . .I want that to change and even though it doesn’t affect our group, it has a chance to affect change for future generations. . .We’re not going to make any excuses. We’re going to lean into the heart and we’re going to go have a great experience.”

Despite the obvious inequities, the Bruins have managed to salvage what was shaping up to be a disappointing season. With the expected return of a few key players who missed last season, as well as the arrival of a few highly-touted transfers, the Bruins were anticipating one of their most talented rosters in years.

Instead, the injury bug struck hard and the Bruins stumbled into March, missing out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Ironically, that was the last time UCLA was in the WNIT and they ended up winning the entire tournament behind future WNBA players Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.

UCLA guard Jaelynn Penn is no stranger to WNIT success. Before transferring to UCLA, Penn was at Indiana, where she helped the Hoosiers win the 2018 WNIT championship. She saw what WNIT success was able to do for the Hoosiers program and she’s confident that the success the Bruins are enjoying now will help set the tone for future UCLA teams.

“I just know from experience how much it helps the program, how much bigger it is than just ourselves as individuals,” Penn said. “We have that experience, the foundation is set, moving the program forward, the girls coming in next year and how we hold ourselves the years coming from that win. It’s super important for us to go ahead and win this thing and just realize that it’s bigger than us.”

And the Bruins certainly have a chance to advance further than Thursday night. They still have key players unable to play, but they welcomed Angela Dugalić and Camryn Brown back into the lineup towards the end of the season. They were able to dispatch UC Irvine and Air Force at home in the first two rounds of the WNIT.

They pulled out a thriller of a game against Wyoming on the road that went into triple overtime and then followed that up with an impressive win at Oregon State. Going back to the end of the regular season and into the Pac-12 tournament, the Bruins have now won seven of their last eight games.

They’re playing the best basketball they’ve played all season and for Close, this is what she expected from them.

“I thought it would take us some time to mold our group together because we did have so many new faces and pieces, but I thought this would be about what we’d be seeing going into maybe the end of December going into Pac-12 play. We’ve all understood the adversity that hit us and we have to deal with that and move on.

But I have been really pleased to see the growth and trajectory,” Close said. “Even today in practice, I thought we were growing tremendously just in terms of offensively trying to find mismatches against teams that switch, hunting for the paint even it takes us deeper into the shot clock, I think you have to be able to execute the quarter court when you come to NCAA tournament play or in our case, the NIT. I’m seeing growth every single day and that’s been really fun to be part of.”

For Osborne, one of the main things that has motivated her to help lead the Bruins as far as they can go in the WNIT is a video the team watched together about the 2015 team.

“Jordin Canada was in the video and she was talking about her experience and how much it helped the program,” Osborne said. “I think, at least for me, that’s just made me want to come out here and win, even if it’s not affecting the group that I’m playing with right now, but the group’s in the future.”

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.

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