UCLA coach has high praise for Huskies, Geno
UCLA coach Cori Close has coached five players on UConn’s roster through the Team USA junior national team system.
She’s won gold with Paige Bueckers (Thailand at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup), Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (Mexico City at the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship), and Azzi Fudd and Amari DeBerry (Hungary at the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup).
Close even recruited some of this year’s Huskies, including Williams and Fudd. The top prospect in the Class of 2021, Fudd decided between UCLA and UConn.
Come Saturday in Newark, Close will see those players from the opposing bench when UCLA faces UConn in the Never Forget Tribute Classic (1 p.m., ABC).
The teams enter the game with something in common, as both have depleted rosters and are dealing with injuries. UConn could have nine available players — the Huskies had eight in a loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday,
with four players injured and Piath Gabriel not available because of an academic obligation. UCLA will have just eight, and redshirt senior guard Chantel Horvat has restricted minutes.
“We’re sort of almost mirroring each other, which is scary. It’s not the mirror that you’d want, but that’s our reality,” Close told Hearst Connecticut Media.
UConn will play its second game without Bueckers, who is out six to eight weeks with a tibial plateau fracture. The Huskies are also without freshman Fudd and sophomore Nika Mühl, who both have right foot injuries and were on the bench in Atlanta wearing boots. Junior Aubrey Griffin (ankle, back) is also sidelined.
UConn, which lost to No. 1 South Carolina earlier this season, is looking to avoid consecutive defeats for the first time since since March 1993.
But Close has intimate knowledge of the talent on the rest of UConn’s roster.
“There’s tendencies and ways they like to play, but let’s not feel so sorry for them,” Close said. “I mean, Christyn Williams was the No. 1 player in her class. Olivia Nelson-Ododa was in the top five of her class, Evina Westbrook was top 10 in her class. The list goes on and on about these impact level players, talking an all-big 10 player in Dorka (Juhász). They still have a lot of talent. …
“He’s (UConn coach Geno Auriemma) really only played six and seven in the past. I think the difference in this is that you’re talking about a Paige Bueckers who is so centrally focused in your offense and what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s your style that has to be adjusted and people’s roles that have to be adjusted. But the guy is one of the best in the world, so he’s gonna figure that out.”
The Bruins are missing graduate transfer Gina Conti, redshirt freshman Angela Dugalic, senior Kiara Jefferson, redshirt freshman Emily Bessoir and junior guard Camryn Brown to injuries. Bessoir was
UCLA’s block leader last year (16 in 22 games) but is out for the season after tearing her ACL in October.
Close has dealt with roster challenges before. Last season, the Bruins had so many injuries they had to postpone a game against Colorado because they could not meet the Pac-12’s minimum of seven healthy scholarship players. UCLA later lost to Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after its seven available players fell to six when senior Lauryn Miller went down with a knee injury in the second half.
The Bruins are 5-2 this season, with losses to Kent State and South Dakota State. UCLA is led by graduate transfer IImar’I Thomas (19.1points) and junior Charisma Osborne (18.5). Osborne had a breakout season last year, averaging a careerhigh 17.0 points per game and scoring at least 20 points in seven straight games. She was named an Ann Meyers Drysdale Award top 10 finalist and a Naismith Trophy midseason honoree.
Osborne also emerged as a leader.
“She wants to win. She wants to be her best,” Close said of Osborne. “And I think she’s made a choice that it’s more important to develop winning habits and to have a winning basketball team than it is to just be liked by everybody all the time. That it’s her job to create the kind of discomfort when people aren’t meeting the standard.”
A lot is on the line for UConn on Saturday. A win would give the team some momentum going into a week-long break before facing No. 7 Louisville, while a loss would snap the Huskies’ 1,030-game streak without back-to-back losses.
UConn is 6-0 all-time against the Bruins, including a 69-61 win in the 2019 Sweet 16. The Huskies won at Pauley Pavilion in November 2017 with Kobe Bryant watching from one baseline and Meyers Drysdale at the end of the end of the arena.
Auriemma was thrilled to coach in the building that his idol John Wooden made famous. He also spoke glowingly about Close, who visited Storrs years ago to observe a UConn practice and pick Auriemma’s brain.
The last time UCLA played UConn, Auriemma gifted Close with a bottle of his signature wine. On Saturday, Close said she is bringing the Hall of Fame coach a bottle of red wine she got in Hungary during the World Cup.
It’s the same wine she drank after each win in Hungary, where she led Team USA through seven wins for its second straight World Cup title.
“I’m a competitor. I want to win, but also can at the same time have an appreciation for how much they (UConn coaches) have helped grow me as a coach,” Close said.