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Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM
Two years ago, for the first time, UCLA women’s basketball had the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. The team’s extremely tough schedule proved hard on the young squad, which finished with a 19-18 record. Last year, the Bruins made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Sweet 16. This year, expectations are even higher. Here’s a glimpse into what it’s like being a top Bruin athlete, on the court, in the locker room, in the classroom and at home.
The word hangs in the rarefied air of Pauley Pavilion as UCLA’s women’s basketball team begins another grueling practice. It’s an appropriate word, as the players will spend the next three hours running, shooting, rebounding and scrimmaging at a punishing pace. Even the free throw drills aren’t relaxing: Players must make two free throws in a row, and if they miss, their teammates must run the length of the court and back within 11 seconds. It’s an exhausting exercise, but the players are upbeat, yelling encouragement to each other.
At the beginning of each season, Head Coach Cori Close M.Ed. ’95 chooses a theme that serves as inspiration for the team, and this year, it’s “grit.” The team adopted the word last summer when they read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, in which author Angela Duckworth writes that the secret to achieving success is not talent, but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”
Fortunately for UCLA, these young women possess both grit and talent. They turned a disappointing 2014-2015 season around with a victory in the WNIT championship game, and last year reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. This season, the Bruins have been selected to win the Pac-12 conference, and at press time they were ranked No. 9 in the country in both the preseason USA Today and Associated Press polls.
“The Bruins are picked to finish No. 1 in the conference, and this is a major vote of confidence from the Pac-12 coaches,” says Tammy Blackburn, NCAA women’s college basketball analyst. “This team can score, and it will be fun to watch them score from inside the paint, from three-point shooting and from penetrating to the basket. This team plays with a purpose that they understand.”
THE FAB FOUR
Many basketball fans are expecting great things from the 2016-2017 Bruins, whose roster includes the four remaining members from that No. 1 recruiting class: guards Jordin Canada and Kelli Hayes and forwards Monique Billings and Lajahna Drummer. (The fifth member of that class, Recee’ Caldwell, left UCLA after her freshman year to play for Texas Tech, where her father is an assistant coach.)
When these players arrived at UCLA in 2014, they had a common goal: to start a legacy in UCLA women’s basketball. “We wanted to put UCLA on the map with the basketball program,” says Billings, a 6’4” forward from Corona, Calif. “We’ve never won an NCAA championship here, and we knew that coming in, so we said we could do it. We didn’t want to have the torch passed to us, and we didn’t want to have to ride on someone’s coattails. We wanted to do it ourselves.”
Canada, a 5’6” point guard from Los Angeles who is on this year’s Nancy Lieberman Award watch list (which honors the nation’s top point guard in collegiate women’s basketball), admits that that first year was tough. Pressure from overblown expectations, a lack of familiarity with one another and trying to adjust to a new system were “a lot to handle,” she says.
“We had a disappointing year, and then all of us decided what it was going to take for us to get to where we wanted to go, and that involved team chemistry, getting to know each other better, pushing each other,” Canada says. “I think all those things just helped us develop the sisterhood that we have right now. And it’s only getting better.”
This is Close’s sixth year as head coach of the Bruins, and her staff — assistant coaches Jenny Huth, Tony Newnan and Shannon Perry, and director of operations Pam Walker ’85, M.Ed. ’90 — have been with her from the beginning. They are the most enduring staff in Pac-12 women’s basketball, and the players have come to rely on them as much as Close does. In fact, it says a lot when Kelli Hayes, a 6’ guard from San Jose, Calif., feels comfortable enough to post a funny video on the team’s Facebook page in which she imitates the coaching style of Close and Newnan.
“A lot of us have built good relationships with Coach Cori, as well as with Coach Shannon, Coach Tony and Coach Jenny, where we can do things like that,” says Hayes, the third member of the 2014 class. “We’ll go to dinner with Coach Cori, or we’ll walk to class with a coach, or go into their office and talk to them, just because we want to. That’s something that’s embedded into our program — that family atmosphere.”
The fourth member of the 2014 class is Lajahna Drummer, a 6’1” forward from Inglewood, Calif. She is, according to teammate Kari Korver, a “supercompetitive, fiery player. She’s that girl who will give someone else a black eye going for a rebound.”
That draws a chuckle from Drummer, who admits that she’s very competitive. “I don’t like to be outworked,” she says, smiling. Two of her biggest joys last year, in fact, were beating Pac-12 rival Stanford “by a lot of points,” and going undefeated at Pauley during the regular season. Drummer underwent knee surgery in July; she is rehabbing furiously in hopes of playing the second half of the season in January.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Rounding out this year’s talented and balanced roster are seniors Kari Korver (5’9” guard, Paramount, Calif.) and Nicole Kornet (6’1” guard, Dallas, Texas); juniors Paulina Hersler (6’3” forward, Malmö, Sweden), Chrissy Baird (6’1” guard, Wheaton, Ill.) and Dominique Williams (5’8” guard, Phoenix, Ariz.); sophomores Ashley Hearn (6’4” forward, Rowlett, Texas) and Kennedy Burke (6’1” guard, Northridge, Calif.); and freshmen Ally Rosenblum (6’4” forward, Newport Coast, Calif.) and Lindsey Corsaro (6’1” guard, Indianapolis, Ind.).
In addition to Drummer, three other players are currently on the injured list: Williams, Baird and Corsaro. All four attend practices, rehabbing on the sidelines, and are expected to rejoin the team at some point during the season. Yet injured or not, the members of the team are a close-knit group and spend lots of time together, both on and off the court. Corsaro and Rosenblum, the two freshmen, are amazed at how quickly they were embraced by their older teammates.
“My high school team was pretty good, and we had some success,” Corsaro says. “But here, you’re surrounded by the best players in the country, who have been there and done everything that I hope to accomplish in my career. We have great leadership on this team, so just getting to look to them for guidance and to make me a better player is really impactful.”
“There are just so many people who have taken me under their wing and helped me with anything I need, not just basketball,” Rosenblum adds. “The transition to college, and classes, and what I’m supposed to do when we’re at events — just showing me the ropes.”
Williams and Korver are often the ringleaders when it comes to planning team outings, whether it’s going to the beach, to the movies, to other UCLA teams’ games or to dinner (Outback Steakhouse is a favorite). One of the most popular events is the team’s annual photo shoot, where the players get their hair and makeup done by professionals. The photos are then used for media purposes, but the women can also use them for personal reasons.
The women who choose to play for Close are part of a special breed. “If you only want to be a good basketball player and get a degree here, I will drive you crazy,” the coach says. “Because I am going to ask you to sacrifice for your teammates. I’m going to ask you to grow as a young woman. I’m going to ask you to impact our community.”
It’s as much a spiritual journey as it is a physical one. Close’s mantra is “Uncommon Women Making Uncommon Choices Yielding Uncommon Results,” an idea she got from reading the book Uncommon, written by former NFL coach Tony Dungy. But she didn’t just want the uncommon result to be winning their first NCAA championship — she wanted them to have an uncommon process.
“I think the thing that touched me so much about Coach Wooden was that he didn’t use that word ‘uncommon.’ But he was so uncommon,” Close says. “That’s what has made his teachings stand the test of time — that he was so excellent and so uncommon at the same time. So as I started to unpack that word ‘uncommon,’ I thought, that really doesn’t encapsulate the kind of experience I want these young women to have. I want them to have an uncommon transformational experience here at UCLA that equips them for life.”
Part of the uncommon experience includes being active in community service (“lifestyle givers,” in Close’s parlance). This includes conducting a basketball clinic at an aboriginal school in Australia when the team was there for a four-game swing last summer, and participating in the annual “Dribble for the Cure,” an event that raises money for pediatric cancer research by having registrants dribble a basketball along a 1.2-mile course on campus. The players also regularly deliver new athletic shoes and socks to students at low-income elementary and middle schools, visit UCLA medical patients, and fill backpacks with school supplies as part of the L.A. Dream Center’s Backpack Giveaway.
Recently, Canada was involved in a project with the 3D4E at UCLA Club, which used a
3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand for a young boy named Logan; an uplifting video can be found on the team’s Facebook page. Finally, in partnership with the L.A. Dream Center, the team “adopted” a family with nine children under the age of 12; not only do the players use recycling money to supply everything from diapers to Christmas presents for the single mom and her children, but they also visit the family regularly to play with the kids or to help clean the house.
THEY’RE STUDENTS, TOO
With everything they’re involved in, it’s easy to forget that these athletes are also students. A typical school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and is filled with weight training, injury prevention sessions, yoga, classes, tutoring, team-building sessions, internships and, of course, practice. And this doesn’t even include home games and away games.
“That’s part of the big area of discipline,” Close says. “A lot of times, it has nothing to do with the content and difficulty of the courses. It has to do with the amount on their plates. Learning how to prioritize, learning how to manage your time — these are really hard things for 18-to-22-year-olds. The reality is, being a student-athlete at UCLA is no joke. But we can’t complain about it, because I think it’s one of the biggest preparers for life that we could ever ask for.”
For now, though, the focus is on the current basketball season. No one can predict how the Bruins will do come March, but the players all agree that the Pac-12 championship is a very attainable goal. And beyond that?
“I see us in the NCAA tournament, and depending on how hard we work this year, we’ll see how far we go. But I’d love to be in Dallas for the Final Four,” says Korver, the fifth-year senior. “That would be a dream come true.”