It has been a slow progression, but UCLA basketball is thriving under head coach Cori Close who is cementing her legacy with the Bruins… and she is just getting started.
You could see the jubilation in the eyes of the UCLA basketball women’s team just after the buzzer sounded in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 game on Monday night.
The #6 Bruins’ 85-80 win over #3 Maryland was a landmark victory, not just because the Bruins got to the Sweet 16, but because they got to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season.
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In the history of UCLA women’s basketball, the Bruins had only been to the Sweet 16 a total of three times before Close took over. The last time they made an appearance was in 1999 when former coach Kathy Olivier took UCLA to the Elite Eight.
Olivier tried to repeat her 1999 performance, but in her nine years after that Elite Eight appearance, she was only able to get UCLA into the NCAA Tournament three times and went no further than the second round. in 2008, Olivier was replaced with Nikki Fargas, but she was not long for UCLA as she left for LSU after three years.
In 2011, UCLA had to once again begin the head coach search and athletic director Dan Guerrero looked to a someone that was familiar with the UCLA and the Southern California area, both as a player and a coach.
Cori Close was an up and coming assistant that began her coaching career with UCLA. After being a standout player at UC Santa Barbara, Close joined Olivier in Westwood for two years starting in 1993. After two years in Westwood, Close took a position with her alma mater as an assistant and an associate head coach. In Santa Barbara, she started to refine her coaching skills, especially in regards to recruiting and player development.
Her work with the Gauchos resonated and Close started to draw attention from other programs, but it was Sue Semrau of Florida State who brought her in, also as an assistant and associate head coach. Close had continued to develop her coaching chops at FSU and was a factor in helping the Seminoles make the NCAA Tournament in each of her seven seasons in Tallahassee. Close’s reputation, as well as her resume, made her the perfect fit for UCLA even though she never held a head coach position. It was a risk, but one that Guerrero was confident in.
Close’s first three years were a bit of a roller coaster ride, having taken the Bruins to the Big Dance only once in those three years. Though Close had trouble getting UCLA off the ground, small improvements were being made. In her second year, UCLA finished 3rd in the Pac-12, were runners up in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game and finished with a 26-8. Things were looking up, especially with young players like Atonye Nyingifa, Kori Korver, Kacy Swain, and Nirra Fields developing under Close.
The Bruins regressed in her third year as the Bruins went 13-18, but the change was already in place and the future could be seen on the horizon, especially with a future star by the name of Jordin Canada joining the program in the 2014-15 season.
Close had kept things afloat during this turbulent start to her tenure, but her development and methodologies were starting to pay off, especially since she has been able to bring in more and more talent to help lay the foundation for the future.
UCLA women’s basketball is in the best stretch of their program’s history and they are only going to get better.
The Bruins went through another disappointing regular season in 2014-15 with an overall record of 13-17. They beat Arizona in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament but fell to powerhouse Stanford by only five points. Though it seemed as though UCLA’s season was dead, the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) gave them life and one last chance to play in the postseason. That small revival did not just keep them going for one game, but six more as the Bruins ran through the tournament to capture the WNIT Championship behind 31 points from the freshman Canada. UCLA beat West Virginia in the final game, leading many basketball critics to open their eyes to the potential of Close and her Bruins.
In the next three seasons, UCLA would compete for the Pac-12 Championship, but the likes of top-tier programs Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State (who were already established) kept them from claiming a conference championship. But that did not limit them. The Bruins were going up against some of the best in the country, forging their path for the future.
Though they were not winning hardware, the numbers were speaking for themselves. In the previous three years before this current season, UCLA had no less than 25 wins and would get to the Sweet 16. In 2018, they took yet another step forward as they defeated Texas to get to their first Elite Eight since 1999. Unfortunately, they were stopped by powerhouse Mississippi State. Though they were heading home, they would return. With a vengeance.
In 2014, Close brought in the #1 recruiting class in the country. This was the class that introduced us to Canada but also brought in 5 other key figures that would help the Bruins to succeed in the next few years: Monique Billings, Recee’ Caldwell, Lajahna Drummer, and Kelli Hayes.
Since then, Close has continued to bring in top talent. Kennedy Burke, Lindsay Corsaro, Chantel Horvat, Lauryn Miller, and Ahlana Smith are just some of the high school standouts that have committed to Close and the Bruins… and there is no sign of slowing down. Next season, the Bruins bring the biggest class since 2014 as 5-star point guards Jaden Owens and Charisma Osborne and 4-star guard Camryn Brown and forward Brynn Masikewich join the roster.
Close has even been successful on the transfer front. After only one year at Texas Tech, Japreece Dean was looking for a program that was on the up and up and chose UCLA. Last summer, shooting aficionado Natalie Chou left Baylor for the blue skies of Westwood. Both were top recruits coming out of high school and are going to be big contributors for the Bruins in 2019-20. If you have not been paying attention to UCLA women’s basketball up until this point, now would be a good time to start,
But I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that Close has laid the foundation for the future with recruiting and development. This year, not a lot of pundits expected anything from UCLA, but here we are. The Bruins have made it to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season. This is no coincidence, this is coaching.
In each and every contest, Close has her Bruins playing for each other and playing at the top of their game. Even if UCLA loses to UCONN on Friday, you can guarantee that it will be a fight that the Bruins went down swinging in. They don’t give up and they will not stop and that makes them dangerous.
That is what is so special about this program at this point in time. Close has already made a significant impact on this program. UCLA women’s basketball is in the best stretch of their program’s history and they are only going to get better. This is all because of the mastermind, Cori Close, who is just starting to make noise in Westwood.