For UCLA, the saying is true. Practice makes perfect.
After a series of heartbreaking late-game collapses, coach Cori Close changed UCLA’s training regimen to end practice two to three times a week with a mandatory scrimmage to win. Two minutes and 30 seconds on the clock. A random score. Win and practice is over.
“Trust and believe,” said senior guard Camryn Brown, “we’ve been here a long time trying to win a 2-minute, 30-second game.”
Once plagued by fourth-quarter crises, the Bruins are now winning their close games to keep their season alive. They exorcised their crunch time demons en route to their first Sweet 16 since 2019 and will take on No. 1 South Carolina (34-0) on Saturday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena at 11 a.m. PDT.
No. 4 UCLA (27-9) outscored opponents by an average of just one point in the fourth quarter and in overtime during the regular season. It was the team’s smallest margin in any quarter this season. But in six postseason games, the Bruins hold a 4.5-point lead going into the fourth quarter and overtime. They proved their worth in the second round by turning a one-point deficit early in the fourth quarter into a nine-point win against Oklahoma.
The confidence gained from repeated scrimmage victories helped the Bruins turn their Achilles heel into a strength at the right time. For the last practice period, Close will make up a score. Earlier in the week, the Bruins will be trailing early in the fight against the men’s practice players. They can be tied the next day. Close could spot them a one point lead towards the end of the week.
No matter the situation, the Bruins have to find a way to win.
“Our focus and intentionality with those drills in practice has really reached a new level,” said first-year guard Kiki Rice. “I think that’s what helped us translate our success into gaming.”
Close implemented the strategy after UCLA lost three straight Heartthrobs during the Pac-12 season. UCLA made just one field goal during overtime in a 73-70 loss at Colorado on January 27. Two days later, the Bruins blew an eight-point lead with 6:25 remaining to Utah and allowed the Utes to win the game. on a tray with 0.8 seconds remaining. They blew an 11-point lead with 4:49 remaining in the fourth quarter against Arizona on February 3 and trailed by five points in overtime.
It felt like UCLA “imploded” at the end of every game, Close said.
“In those three games, we had made enough winning plays to win and we didn’t,” the 12-year-old head coach said. “So we needed to be really good to finish.”
Caught in the rough stretch that could have broken other teams, the Bruins relied on their mental training that teaches them to treat every game as a learning opportunity. They carefully watched the film of each loss.
The work paid off starting with a home sweep against Oregon State and Oregon in which the Bruins outscored the Beavers 18-7 in the fourth quarter and the Ducks by 10.
“I don’t think we’d be here in the Sweet 16 without losing those three games,” Brown said. “I’m glad those three games happened because they taught us what to do in those last four minutes of a game. Who do we have to lean on and become in the last four minutes of a game.”
The South Carolina game will be a test of how far the Bruins have come.
On November 29, UCLA led the defending national champions by four at halftime and was tied entering the fourth quarter. Playing in front of over 12,000 fans in Columbia, SC, the Bruins cut South Carolina’s lead to two with 3:41 remaining, but the Gamecocks responded with a 7-0 run.
The Bruins reviewed the game film this week. Close was encouraged by how South Carolina handled the trades for most of the game and struggled without rookie forwards Christen Iwuala, who missed the game with injury, and Lina Sontag, who fouled out in 10 minutes without scoring. UCLA, which lost 73-64, is one of five teams holding the Gamecocks to a single-digit margin this season.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley admired UCLA’s rebounding and offensive purpose. She told Close after the match that they would meet again in March. The Bruins thought so too.
“We couldn’t finish the job in the fourth quarter the first time around, so to get another chance with them when we feel like we’ve improved a lot is a great opportunity for us,” Rice said after UCLA’s win over Oklahoma. “We are not afraid that they are the number one seed. We have no doubts in ourselves.”