January 5, 2024
Undefeated UCLA poised for conference competition
Bruins resume Pac-12 play with confidence
There’s an excitement in Westwood, an excitement not seen in quite some time. That excitement began in the preseason when the UCLA Bruins were slotted in as the No. 2 team in the country in the early AP Poll.
That early ranking was based on a couple of factors. One was the return of guards Charisma Osborne and Camryn Brown, both of whom decided to use their extra COVID year of eligibility. Another was the continued development of the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, now sophomores, that consists of Kiki Rice, Londynn Jones, Christeen Iwuala, Lina Sontag and Gabriela Jaquez. And perhaps the biggest factor was the addition of 6’7 center Lauren Betts, a transfer from Stanford and former five-star recruit.
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During non-conference play, the Bruins sure lived up to that early ranking, knocking off top-ranked teams such as UConn, Florida State and Ohio State. They rolled past other solid teams such as Purdue and Arkansas and a few Big West teams.
And it all prepared them for their toughest test yet, a showdown with crosstown rival USC, who came into the game at No. 6 in the nation, for their Pac-12 opener.
“I think our non-conference schedule gave us a lot of experience; it was definitely a tough schedule that we had going into the game,” Lauren Betts said following the Bruins 71-64 win over USC. “I think we just came in knowing that whatever happened, we were going to be a much tougher team, as Coach Cori [Close] likes to say. I just think we were really prepared because of all the experience.”
The Bruins head into the next phase of conference play with a home and home set against Oregon and Oregon State. They bring with them a perfect 12-0 record. But in many respects, conference play brings a brand new set of challenges, perhaps the Bruins’ biggest tests to date.
The Pac-12 has three other AP Top 25 teams in Colorado (No. 5)*, Stanford (No. 9) and Utah (No. 15). At one point, Washington State was ranked as well. Oregon State is also undefeated at 12-0 while Washington is 11-1 and Cal is 10-3. This is a tough conference and UCLA’s unblemished record is going to be tested each and every game.
But the Bruins believed they are prepared with a soaring level of confidence that has come from each win they’ve racked up, according to UCLA head coach Cori Close.
“Even though we’re undefeated, we’ve had to face different things and I think the more you invite that in your non-conference schedule, it always pays dividends because things get exposed in non-conference,” Close said following the win against USC. “You need poor habits exposed, you need to have certain things. And even though we found a way to win all those games, we still had to face things that were missing. And so I really did think it earned us a level of confidence.”
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While UCLA has looked downright dominant at times during the first half of their schedule, it’s been the behind-the-scenes work that’s been the driving catalyst behind their play. From their practice habits to the male practice players they often go up against, the Bruins are tested everyday. The team has been playing with a level of physicality and tough defense that few teams have been able to match. All of that stems from the behind-the-scenes work.
“We’ve had like the best practice players of all-time, those guys do not take it easy on us,” Betts said. “I think that physicality starts with practice and just going against them every day. So I think even preparing for this game, we had to be super physical against the practice guys. I think doing that in practice led to this game.”
It’s also helped that the excitement around this team has trickled down across campus and through the fanbase. Against USC, the crowd atmosphere at Pauley Pavilion was at a level not even seen during UCLA’s NCAA Tournament win against Oklahoma last season.
For Southern California native Londynn Jones, the crowd certainly played a role in the Bruins grabbing the win. Jones scored a team-high 21 points against USC and helped spark a UCLA run to seize control of the game late in the second half. For her, it was combination of practice habits and the crowd that has helped power UCLA to a strong start.
“I think we practice extremely hard and I think when you do that it makes the game a lot easier; but always working together,” Jones said. “And then being from Cali it means everything. Just seeing everyone out here with the support, it’s tremendous. We appreciate it so much. But it’s just working hard and building on this.”
* An earlier version of this story did not include Colorado among the Pac-12 ranked teams. The Next regrets this error.
Written by David Mendez-Yapkowitz
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.