Before the chaos of March descended on Pauley Pavilion this week, Cori Close assembled her team on Center Court at the end of practice. During this time of year, teams that remember and embrace their identity are more successful, the UCLA head coach reminded her players. That foundation helps weather the inevitable NCAA tournament adversity.
The Bruins, he assured them, know his identity.
“Defense, rebounding,” Close said, “and passion plays.”
The third category is the secret to UCLA’s success. Fueled by an alternate stat sheet of typically intangible stocks, the No. 4-seeded Bruins return to the NCAA tournament after a year-long absence to host No. 13-seeded Sacramento State on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in the first round of Greenville. 1 region at Pauley Pavilion. The game is on ESPN2 and the winner will advance to play No. 5 Oklahoma or No. 12 Portland on Monday.
UCLA tracks seven passion game categories that don’t appear in traditional box scores. The list has grown since Close first implemented the strategy when she was hired at UCLA in 2011, and the Bruins now count screen assists, assist box outs, charges, deflections, rebounds outside the box, the baskets scored without the need for movement once the pass is received and 50-50 balls.
Graduate assistant Jaelynn Penn, who played for the Bruins last season, recounts each gripping play during the game using a pen, sheet of paper and clipboard on the bench. The team’s goal is 75 every game. UCLA’s best performances this season are 79 against Oregon State and 78 against Oregon. The Bruins won both games at Pauley Pavilion.
“Trying to honor all the (things) that coaches know lead to game-winning plays that don’t show up on the stat sheets,” Close said.
Senior Charisma Osborne leads the Bruins in scoring with 15.5 points. Forward Emily Bessoir, UCLA’s top rebounder with 5.8 rebounds per game, stood out in the Pac-12 tournament with four straight double-digit scoring efforts and was named to the All-Tournament Team with Osborne and the student freshman Kiki Rice.
But when it comes to passion games, Camryn Brown and Lina Sontag are the stars.
Brown, a senior, averages three points per game. His career scoring record is nine. She has also been named the team’s Passion Player of the Game nine times this season, tied with Sontag for the team lead.
Sontag, a 6-foot-3 forward, feels like “the passionate player of the century,” Osborne said.
“If you look at your stats and they’re not good, it can be a bit frustrating sometimes, but to see your passion play out, that really cheers me up.”
— Lina Sontag, UCLA forward
“Her ability to track the ball and get deflections, especially with her size, is incredible,” Close said of the freshman from Germany. “Best I’ve ever seen.”
Sontag is averaging 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. But it’s not uncommon for her to notch between 15 and 18 games of passion to win the team prize. She had a game 24 this season.
A regular contributor to the German youth teams, Sontag was always told by coaches that she excelled at deflecting the ball and making rushing plays, but she had never seen it quantified the way UCLA does. The focus on passion plays at UCLA has brought a different level to her game.
“If you look at your stats and they’re not great, it can be a little frustrating sometimes,” Sontag said, “but seeing how your passion plays out, that really cheers me up.”
Close decided long before landing her first head coaching job that following through and celebrating the small plays would be a major pillar of her program. The Bruins recognize the player who plays with the most passion in each game by showing a highlight video of her plays during a meeting before the next game. By sharing praise beyond just the leading scorer or rebounder, teammates see the value of impacting the game in other ways.
“You celebrate the kind of teammate you want to be,” Close said, noting how Osborne, who is the team’s leading scorer and a potential first-round WNBA draft pick, is also the team’s best blocker. “When you value that and your best players value that, I really think it brings a selflessness and a value of teamwork that we all know leads to big-time wins.”
Penn, who joined the Bruins as a graduate transfer from Indiana last season, records every passion play on a chart during the game. She informs Close during each media timeout how many Bruins they have and the coaches emphasize whether the team needs to maintain their current pace or pick it up for the next segment. When the team’s goal is in the offing, players sometimes urge Penn to be lenient with the more objective categories, like rebounding outside the box or 50-50 balls. She responds with a sidelong glance.
These numbers do not lie.