While the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team has, rightly or wrongly, taken up a lot of oxygen on this site in recent weeks, I wanted to take some time highlighting three different women’s teams on campus, as I spent last weekend watching the basketball, gymnastics, and softball teams in action, and came away with differing thoughts on each. So let’s get into them!
I’m going to start with the women’s basketball team because I watched them first on Friday, and because I came away feeling of two minds on the team. Bear with me here.
On the one hand, what UCLA has accomplished under coach Cori Close has been nothing short of phenomenal and this season has been another step in the right direction towards being a perennial power. The Bruins have been consistently ranked in the top 10 this year, and even a bad road loss to Washington this past weekend only led the Bruins to drop one spot to #9. At their best, this team has been able to pick up great road wins at Stanford and Indiana, and beat Oregon State at home. The team has the star power in Michaela Onyenwere and Japreece Dean that you need to be an elite team at this level and the foundation looks to be strong going forward.
That said, it was hard to watch this most recent road trip to the Washington schools and not feel a bit underwhelmed with the team currently. Washington State is not a good team by any stretch, but they were able to race out to a ten-point lead in the first half and stayed close until the Bruins were able to pull away late. Washington is a marginally better team, but UCLA should not be in a spot where they are losing to the Huskies by 14 points in the fourth quarter. In both games, the Bruins suffered from terrible shooting, which has become something of a theme in recent weeks — the Bruins have not shot over 40% from the field since the victory over Stanford at the beginning of the month, while four of UCLA’s five opponents have topped that number in that time frame. Against lesser teams, you can sometimes get away with that, but it tends to catch up to you eventually.
The good news is that there is still time to turn things around and get on the right foot heading into postseason play, beginning with the final homestand this week. The Bruins seem that they will be locked into a three-seed in the NCAA tournament at this point with an outside shot at grabbing a two-seed if some things break their way, and have the ability to make a deep run in the tournament. Maybe this poor stretch of play will be a blessing and allow the team to refocus for the final run of games. I do know that I won’t be betting against Coach Close when it comes to getting it done.
Let’s move on to the gymnastics team, which had one of their biggest meets of the year on Sunday when they hosted Utah.
I will be upfront at the beginning here and state that I do not fully understand gymnastics. I get the basics. There are four events. Teams put six participants on each event with the top five scores being counted and the best score wins, but when it comes to things like what makes a good routine and how deductions are handed out, I am a complete novice. Personally, I blame the movie Stick It for being the basis of my gymnastics understanding. So, when I watch gymnastics meets, I tend to favor the performances that are fun as all get out.
Folks: UCLA is fun as all get out.
This is where having good commentary helps out because I was able to quickly figure out that UCLA versus Utah is a clash of styles. In Utah, the goal is technical precision. They’re not the flashiest gymnasts in the world, especially with MyKayla Skinner taking this season off to train for the Olympics, but they are going to nail their routines consistently and put pressure on you to do the same. UCLA, meanwhile, is the more bombastic of the two. They go for more risk in their routines, which can backfire occasionally. UCLA’s average beam score this year seems particularly low for such a highly-ranked team but, as a viewer, I appreciate it. Similarly, Utah’s focus on precision left me feeling cold to their routines, while UCLA’s routines felt like they overflowed with joy at every turn.
Really, I keep thinking back on UCLA’s floor routines. I get that this had always been the Bruins’ strong suit under Miss Val, but it’s such a good sign for this program that UCLA continues to turn the floor into their own personal party. Each routine blew me away in their own way. There was Norah Flatley’s Black Swan and Chloe Lashbrooke’s Bollywood moves. Nia Dennis put on a pure display of attitude while Gracie Kramer offered some psychologically-stunning storytelling. Felicia Hano threw her own fiesta on the floor and, of course, Kyla Ross was doing Kyla Boss things. The whole thing is elevated more when you watch the team on the sideline doing each routine with the performer, including Flatley who is on some #friendshipgoals levels with her following along on the outside and somehow finding every hot mic near the floor to yell encouragement into. As a gym agnostic, these are the types of performances that can turn people into fans.
I can’t get into the specifics of Utah getting overscored on some performances or UCLA getting underscored on some because I don’t have enough experience with gymnastics in general. My gut says that the judges for this meet may have just favored the precision of Utah over the daring of UCLA (again, blame Stick it for this), but that wasn’t what people should take away from this meet. UCLA showed that they can clean things up when the lights start shining brightest and you have to like their chances as we get close to the postseason meets.
Finally, let’s talk about softball, as the UCLA softball team went into the Mary Nutter Classic this past weekend and came away with a clean sheet, beating Wisconsin, Florida, and Auburn before falling in an exhibition game to the USA Olympic Softball team. And. before I go any further, make sure you’re reading BruinAZ’s excellent write-ups of the team. BruinAZ has stepped up at a time when the BN staff has been limited in our coverage due to issues outside of our control.
Going into the season, I had some questions about how the team would perform this year. Not so much that UCLA would have a letdown season following their national championship, but rather that a few big contributors from last year’s squad, including player of the year Rachael Garcia, were no longer on the squad, so other players would have to step up. I felt that, eventually, that would happen - Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez has always done a good job of keeping the program stocked with talent - but that it might take a bit to gel.
So, of course, this team has resumed looking fantastic and is back to being the #1 team in the country. Shows me I guess.
Part of what has helped has been the rise of Megan Faraimo as the pitching successor to Rachael Garcia. Faraimo has been outstanding to start the season with her only true blemish coming against the US Olympic team. The pitching staff, in general, has been very good with Holly Azevedo looking like a solid #2 option. The offense was a bit spotty this weekend, putting up two run-rules but also needing extra innings in two other games, but I’m not as worried on that end, just because the Bruins did return some strong bats from last year’s team like Aaliyah Jordan and, because as a former baseball player, I always feel it’s harder to get good pitching than timely hitting.
In any case, this is nowhere close to a rebuilding year for the Bruins. This is a team that absolutely can and will compete for another national championship, even in an absolutely loaded Pac-12 softball scene. I’m very excited to see how they do going forward.
Wow, that was a pretty optimistic column, all things considered. I wonder if I missed anything....
Oh. Oh no.
QUICK SPRING BALL PREVIEW TIME BECAUSE WE HAVE BEEN FORCED TO RATION ARTICLES!
- There are some position battles to keep an eye on. The biggest one will probably be on the offensive line where the Bruins have to replace at least two starters from last year’s team, including center Boss Tagaloa. That...won’t be easy, especially with the Bruins having done an average-at-best job of recruiting the position under Chip Kelly.
- Running back will also be an interesting battle, with Joshua Kelley now gone to the NFL and no one really stepping up as his true backup last year. You have to imagine Demetric Felton will start at the top of the depth chart, but he was best used last year as a scat-back type, so it will be important for someone else to step up as more of a bruising, between-the-tackles style runner.
- Here’s a question: Is the quarterback position open? Transfer Colson Yankoff is now eligible to play after sitting out a year, while UCLA brought in four-star Parker McQuarrie in this last recruiting cycle. McQuarrie won’t be on campus until the summer. So, he’s probably a long-shot here, but you have to assume Yankoff doesn’t transfer from Washington if he doesn’t believe he would have a fair shot at winning the job and, as good as Dorian Thompson-Robinson was at times last year, his inconsistencies and injury history would seemingly open the door just a crack. I’m not expecting any changes during the spring, but it’s definitely something to watch.
- On defense, I think the most interesting thing to watch will be the linebackers. This group wasn’t great last year and then almost the entire linebacker corps graduated. UCLA is bringing in a ton of linebackers this cycle, but only a few of them are on campus now and more than a few true freshman will be called upon to provide meaningful snaps in a make-or-break year. That’s never a good sign and how this group progresses in the spring will be important for the defense.
- Finally: Will this coaching staff be feeling the pressure? Having a 7-17 record after two years is never good. With a new athletic director on the horizon—one who probably does not have ties to the current administration that brought them in—they really need to show that the proof of concept is sound to feel safe. I think the tenor of spring practice is going to tell a lot about how secure this staff feels.
Alright, enough depressing things. UCLA basketball is fun again. I’ll see y’all at Pauley on Saturday.