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UCLA women's basketball brings high hopes to small stage

New Coach Cori Close was a protege of John Wooden, and the Bruins, ranked No. 22, will play at the Wooden Center this season.

November 10, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • UCLA first-year women's basketball Coach Cori Close hopes a renewed emphasis on offense will help the Bruins improve on last year's 28-win season.
UCLA first-year women's basketball Coach Cori Close hopes a renewed… (Don Liebig / UCLA )

Rebekah Gardner hears it all the time from her counterparts on the men's basketball team at UCLA.

You have to play at the Wooden Center? That little thing?

"I just say, 'At least we'll have sold-out crowds,'" said Gardner, a senior guard.

While the men's team ventures to the cavernous Sports Arena and Honda Center this season with Pauley Pavilion in the midst of renovations, the Bruins' women will play their home games on campus in a cozy 2,000-seat facility.

"We're the only show in town," said Coach Cori Close, UCLA's new leading lady after Nikki Caldwell's departure for Louisiana State. "That place is rocking when it's packed."

The Bruins lost some star power when senior Jasmine Dixon, an all-conference forward, ruptured her Achilles' tendon in September and was sidelined for the season. But they return a pair of starters in guard Markel Walker and forward Atonye Nyingifa in addition to Gardner, a part-time starter last year's team, which won 28 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Close said she would complement the focus on defense and rebounding the Bruins established under Caldwell with a renewed emphasis on offense, Close's specialty in her 18 seasons as an assistant coach at Florida State, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA.

UCLA is expected to use what amounts to a five-guard lineup, with the 5-foot-11 Nyingifa serving as the de facto center Friday afternoon when the No. 22 Bruins open their season against McNeese State at the Wooden Center in the first round of the preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament.

"We don't have a post player in sight," Close said.

The Bruins envision continuing the success they achieved under Caldwell, who guided them to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and a school-record 16 conference wins last season. Part of that might entail beating Caldwell and LSU on Dec. 13 in Baton Rouge, La., in what figures to be an emotional game.

"We really can't be mad at her," Gardner said. "If we were her, we probably would have made the same decision."

Whereas Caldwell often espoused the philosophies of longtime Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, Close has already channeled John Wooden, her mentor when she was an assistant at UCLA from 1993 to 1995. Close said she wanted to build the bottom level of his Pyramid of Success this season, laying the foundation to make UCLA a top-10 program.

If Close ever needs a reminder of the late Wooden, all she'll have to do is look at the name of the tiny building in which her team will play its home games.

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