UCLA women continue strong turnaround under Close

Cori Close is having a lot more fun in her second season as

coach of UCLA.

Close took over the Bruins program after the 2011 season when

Nikki Caldwell bolted for LSU. A longtime assistant and associate

head coach for various different teams, Close had a trying first

year at UCLA between injuries and players adapting to a new

system.

Things have definitely gotten better for the 14th-ranked Bruins

this season. They are 7-1 so far after edging St. John’s 53-52 in

overtime Sunday to win the Red Storm’s Holiday Classic. It’s only

the second time in the past 20 years that the Bruins have won seven

of their first eight games.

”We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” said Close,

who was 14-16 in her first year. ”Hopefully we can keep this

going.”

The biggest change so far this season has been that the Bruins

have been able to stay healthy. Jasmine Dixon returned from an

Achilles injury while Atonye Nyingifa came back from a torn ACL. It

got so bad last season that the Bruins were down to only seven

players at one point.

Besides getting her team healthy, Close also has benefited from

Alyssia Brewer, who had to sit out last season because of NCAA

transfer rules.

”It definitely helps having everyone back and the addition of

Alyssia,” Close said. ”She’s the only redshirt I’ve ever coached

that was a leader before she played a game, even before she was

healthy. She’s the mother hen of our team. She was the unanimous

choice as captain, she was the only one.”

Brewer had 14 points and 15 rebounds in the overtime victory

Sunday, earning MVP honors of the tournament. Even though she

couldn’t play last season, Brewer has noticed a change in the team’

attitude this season.

”It’s not just something that happened,” Brewer said. ”It

shows the dedication and hard work people put in the offseason. Us

coming together each game more and more as far as team

chemistry.”

Brewer learned a lot about team dynamics and success in her

three years at Tennessee. She’s been trying to impart it on her new

team.

”I’ve had experience in big games in the NCAA tournament so I

think I just try and take what I learned there and apply it to the

team now.”

Close also spent time this past offseason learning from some of

the best coaches in the country. She took her staff to watch

Connecticut and Notre Dame practice.

”It was almost like a mini-retreat for our staff. It was a

great experience,” Close said. ”I had a relationship with both

their staffs (already) and I asked if we could come back in the

fall. We make no bones about it, we’re trying to build a top-10

program. I’m a John Wooden disciple. He’s a model of humility and

always learning. He modeled for me being a consummate learner. I

want to go and learn from other people.”

UCLA’s only blemish this season came against Notre Dame, a

12-point loss right after Thanksgiving.

The Bruins almost suffered their second loss Sunday against St.

John’s. Dixon’s layup with just over a second left lifted UCLA to

the one-point win.

”This was a pivotal marker in the season and we’ll look back on

this game and go wow, we got a lot tougher,” Close said. ”We know

how to fight and find a way to win.”

After a successful trip to New York, UCLA returns home to finish

off the month with three non-conference games before beginning

Pac-12 play in January. Besides playing the two games, the Bruins

made the most of their time in the city. They took in a Broadway

show, saw the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and visited

ground zero.

”It really is about bringing a multilevel education to them,”

Close said. ”Most of them hadn’t been to New York so it was

important for us to let them experience that. Team chemistry is so

important. It’s easy to say we added two wins and it’s a successful

trip for us, but we want them to have the best total collegiate

experience.”

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