Cori Close is having a lot more fun in her second season as coach of UCLA.
Close took over the Bruins program after the 2011 season when Nikki Caldwell bolted for LSU. A longtime assistant and associate head coach for various different teams, Close had a trying first year at UCLA between injuries and players adapting to a new system.
Things have definitely gotten better for the 14th-ranked Bruins this season. They are 7-1 so far after edging St. John's 53-52 in overtime Sunday to win the Red Storm's Holiday Classic. It's only the second time in the past 20 years that the Bruins have won seven of their first eight games.
"We're definitely headed in the right direction," said Close, who was 14-16 in her first year. "Hopefully we can keep this going."
The biggest change so far this season has been that the Bruins have been able to stay healthy. Jasmine Dixon returned from an Achilles injury while Atonye Nyingifa came back from a torn ACL. It got so bad last season that the Bruins were down to only seven players at one point.
Besides getting her team healthy, Close also has benefited from Alyssia Brewer, who had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules.
"It definitely helps having everyone back and the addition of Alyssia," Close said. "She's the only redshirt I've ever coached that was a leader before she played a game, even before she was healthy. She's the mother hen of our team. She was the unanimous choice as captain, she was the only one."
Brewer had 14 points and 15 rebounds in the overtime victory Sunday, earning MVP honors of the tournament. Even though she couldn't play last season, Brewer has noticed a change in the team' attitude this season.
"It's not just something that happened," Brewer said. "It shows the dedication and hard work people put in the offseason. Us coming together each game more and more as far as team chemistry."
Brewer learned a lot about team dynamics and success in her three years at Tennessee. She's been trying to impart it on her new team.
"I've had experience in big games in the NCAA tournament so I think I just try and take what I learned there and apply it to the team now."
Close also spent time this past offseason learning from some of the best coaches in the country. She took her staff to watch Connecticut and Notre Dame practice.
"It was almost like a mini-retreat for our staff. It was a great experience," Close said. "I had a relationship with both their staffs (already) and I asked if we could come back in the fall. We make no bones about it, we're trying to build a top-10 program. I'm a John Wooden disciple. He's a model of humility and always learning. He modeled for me being a consummate learner. I want to go and learn from other people."
UCLA's only blemish this season came against Notre Dame, a 12-point loss right after Thanksgiving.
The Bruins almost suffered their second loss Sunday against St. John's. Dixon's layup with just over a second left lifted UCLA to the one-point win.
"This was a pivotal marker in the season and we'll look back on this game and go wow, we got a lot tougher," Close said. "We know how to fight and find a way to win."
After a successful trip to New York, UCLA returns home to finish off the month with three non-conference games before beginning Pac-12 play in January. Besides playing the two games, the Bruins made the most of their time in the city. They took in a Broadway show, saw the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and visited ground zero.
"It really is about bringing a multilevel education to them," Close said. "Most of them hadn't been to New York so it was important for us to let them experience that. Team chemistry is so important. It's easy to say we added two wins and it's a successful trip for us, but we want them to have the best total collegiate experience."
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