On Friday, the day before the biggest game of the season, Cori Close gathered her players at half court to begin practice. With UCLA’s first-round game approaching, the coach wanted to set a tone for her team. She doesn’t need a fiery motivational speech.
The Bruins had a dance party instead.
With a balance of focus and freedom, No. 4 UCLA is dancing into the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it will face No. 5 Oklahoma (27-6) on Monday at 7 pm PDT at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins (26-9) are one win away from their seventh trip to the Sweet 16 and their first since 2019. The stakes rise with each game, but Close just wants his players to enjoy the experience of living out the childhood dream of playing on the March Madness Stage.
“If you’re relieved after a win, you’re not getting what this is all about,” Close said Sunday, echoing a message he heard from Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari. “I don’t want them to play tight. I want them to play for free. I want them to play focused and I want them to play with a lot of gratitude and joy.”
After losing to Washington State in the Pac-12 title game, Close realized the importance of emphasizing fun during the season’s highest-pressure games. He regretted not doing that enough after the Bruins upset Stanford in the conference semifinals.
The day after the monumental victory, UCLA went about their business as usual, studying film in the morning and then going to practice. The players enjoyed a spa day, but as the game approached, Close felt that his players were putting too much pressure on themselves. He left feeling the Bruins didn’t play their best in the big moment, trailing by four in a tense game with 13 lead changes and five ties.
The loss taught Close that she didn’t need to motivate this group of players to work hard. They do that on their own. Instead, she needed to remind them to let go.
“If we continue to prepare with great focus,” Close said, “then we needed to bring great joy.”
The Bruins tried to strike that balance during the two-week break between the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments. They were surprised with new Jordan brand shoes and bags after practice one day. They blast music in the locker room and sing karaoke style on the team bus.
What might be perceived as a distraction to other groups is something that brings the Bruins closer together, graduate transfer guard Gina Conti said.
“It’s fun, basketball is fun,” the former Wake Forest star said. “We worked hard to get here, it’s okay to be present, to enjoy the moment.”
With the whole day of waiting before kickoff on Saturday at 8:30 pm PDT, players stayed relaxed in the morning by watching other tournament games. Conti, who was playing in his first NCAA tournament game for the Bruins after a 2021 first-round loss to the Demon Deacons, went to breakfast with his father, who is in town for the tournament, and did the manicure in the locker room. before starting your normal pre-game routine.
“We were all excited, the NCAA tournament, March Madness,” Conti said, “I think we all felt that and used it to fuel ourselves. If we didn’t feel anything, then we wouldn’t worry like we do. That’s any type of competitor, any type of athlete, so I think they’ve all used it to our advantage.”
The Bruins jumped out over Sacramento State by scoring 14 unanswered points in the first quarter and racing to the second round, where Oklahoma presents a new set of challenges.
The Sooners are the second highest scoring team in the country, averaging 84.5 points per game. With forward Madi Williams and guard Taylor Robertson, Oklahoma is one of only two teams in the country to have two active 2,000-point scorers. Close characterized the Sooners as a potent combination of Stanford and Utah with the way they shoot from distance.
UCLA went 1-3 against the Cardinal and Utes, the top two teams in the Pac-12 this season.