Under the direction of Coach Cori Close, the UCLA women's basketball… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
The players Cori Close inherited when she took over as coach of the UCLA women's basketball program were not a cheerful bunch.
It was the spring of 2011 and the Bruins had just lost their previous coach, the charismatic Nikki Caldwell, who bolted to Louisiana State for more money and a job closer to family.
Fans grumbled, wondering if Athletic Director Dan Guerrero had tried hard enough to keep Caldwell. The players felt betrayed.
"We had a lot of trust issues," forward Jasmine Dixon recalls. "We didn't want to open our hearts to a new coaching staff."
That was no recipe for success. Yet, this season — Close's second in Westwood — the Bruins have shown progress. Thanks to a couple of upsets over ranked teams, they have climbed to No. 15 in the Associated Press poll, adopting a style that combines quick passing with aggressive defense and physical rebounding.
"It has taken some time to get to this point," Close said. "It's been hard."
Now comes a test at home against No. 6 California and No. 4 Stanford, conference opponents that overpowered the Bruins on the road. If nothing else, this weekend will provide a measuring stick for a team on the mend.
During her three-year stint, Caldwell did more than breathe new life into the Bruins. She did it with style.
A strikingly attractive woman in five-inch heels. A devoted Harley rider. A fiery presence that commanded the spotlight.
As Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, an ESPN analyst, explains, "Those were some big pumps to fill."
Close does not claim to be glamorous, wearing blue sweats at practice, keeping her hair tied back. She ranks among the game's top offensive minds, but there is something else, something that dates to the mid-1990s, when she served as a UCLA assistant and showed up at John Wooden's home.
"How do you spell your name?" the legendary coach asked.
"Really? Come right in."
Wooden explained that his great-granddaughter had the same name, and a friendship was born. Close began stopping by regularly.
Not surprisingly, defense and hustle became essential parts of her repertoire, even as subsequent assistant jobs at UC Santa Barbara and Florida State forced her to focus on scoring. But she also recalls Wooden saying: "You can't do it like me, you have to find your own personality."
This advice proved crucial when Close returned to UCLA for her first head coaching job. She could not be another Caldwell, and she could not win her team's fealty right away.
"That was a hurting group of people and they weren't sure what I was all about," Close said. "I had to be patient."
The Bruins never stood a chance in 2011-12, when a rash of injuries left them with only seven healthy bodies. During a high-altitude game at Colorado, Close recalls, "we had players with oxygen masks on the bench. It was crazy."
The new coaching staff looked past the 14-16 record, focusing on the foundation of Wooden's Pyramid of Success — loyalty and enthusiasm.
The players could sense Close's energy. And they could see at least one improvement over Caldwell who, despite the hype, was criticized for not fully developing athletes.
"Coach Cori is more of a hands-on coach," forward Markel Walker said. "We feel like we've gotten better from the workouts she puts us through."
As that first season came to an end, the Bruins found one more reason to play hard, tapping into hurt and anger.
As Walker put it, "We wanted to show Coach Nikki what she left behind."
This fall, those injured players returned and forward Alyssia Brewer, a transfer from Tennessee, became eligible. Freshmen Nirra Fields and Kari Korver figured to contribute right away.
Still, Close did not really know about her players until they traveled to No. 11 Oklahoma in November. An 86-80 upset victory set a tone.
"Physical on the ball, physical away from the ball," Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale said. "We couldn't make a pass, we couldn't enter the post because of the physical play.… It affected every phase of the game."
Subsequent wins over No. 12 Texas and No. 22 Colorado nudged UCLA higher in the polls. The Bruins established themselves among the national leaders in rebounding margin and assists.
Walker, projected as a high pick in the next WNBA draft, has sacrificed points to distribute the ball. Working inside, Brewer leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Korver helps spread defenses with her jump shot.
"Our offense is set; we can score," Fields said. "But it's the defensive side that counts."
The Bruins learned that lesson the hard way in mid-January during consecutive losses against Stanford and California.
Since then, the Bruins have shown a renewed commitment to taking advantage of their quickness and accumulating "passion plays," which means setting good screens, deflecting passes and grabbing loose balls.
The result is a six-game winning streak, a 19-4 record and a sense that things might turn out better against their Pac-12 rivals this weekend, starting with Cal on Friday night.
Already a safe bet for the NCAA tournament, UCLA has a chance to sneak its way into the top 10.
And the Bruins might even be learning to trust their coach.