UCLA vows to turn disappointment into Final Four run next season

Whenever she wants to pass on a workout, give in to the urge to linger on the couch instead of going to the gym to take more shots, Gabriela Jaquez will revisit the way she felt amid the hush of UCLA’s locker room inside MVP Arena.

The pain. The disappointment. The anguish at not getting it done for the teammates who won’t be back.

“When I’m feeling lazy at times, think about this because I don’t want to be here again, I don’t like losing,” Jaquez said after the Bruins’ season ended Saturday with a 78-69 loss to Louisiana State in a semifinal of the Albany 2 Regional of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. “I think I just need to get better in the offseason and keep working.”

Improvement was a theme sounded by players and coach Cori Close alike after UCLA lost during the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. The Bruins have reached the Sweet 16 five times under Close, with an additional trip to the Elite Eight in 2018.

LSU guard Mikaylah Williams and UCLA forward Gabriela Jaquez battle for the ball during their Sweet 16 matchup Saturday in Albany, N.Y.

(Hans Pennink / Associated Press)

After arriving as a transfer from Stanford, highly skilled forward Lauren Betts was widely viewed as the player who could take UCLA to the Final Four for the first time since it was playing in the Assn. for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament in 1979.

Betts starred as predicted for a team that finished tied with USC for second place in the Pac-12 standings. But the Bruins lost several close games — including a three-point setback against Washington State, a buzzer-beater against Oregon State and a double-overtime defeat against USC — that not only dropped them to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament but shipped them all the way across the country to play in the so-called Group of Death alongside top-seeded Iowa and defending champion LSU.

“There’s three games specifically that we know let get away that — not taking anything away from those other teams, but we had opportunities to close them; we didn’t,” Close said. “That’s why we’re on the East Coast. We have nobody to blame but ourselves for that.”

They nearly persevered, taking a three-point lead over LSU with 2½ minutes left before faltering amid the Tigers’ game-ending 14-2 run.

“I will play this over and over in my head and try to figure out from my perspective how I could have led them better or different,” Close said. “But you’re not going to win games in this level giving up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Again, I’m the head coach. I’m responsible. They’re young. I need to lead them better, and I need to lead them into situations where they have the confidence and that we execute in those scenarios. Youth cannot be our excuse.”

The Bruins could get even younger next season, depending on how a few decisions play out. Seniors Charisma Osborne and Cam Brown are departing and Izzy Anstey announced her retirement from basketball, but Angela Dugalic and Emily Bessoir have the option to return next season.

Another top-five recruiting class that includes five-star guard Avary Cain, five-star wing Kendall Dudley and five-star forward Zania “Big Z” Socka in addition to highly touted guard Elina Aarnisalo of Finland will provide the latest infusion of talent for a coach who has logged many wins on the recruiting trail.

What matters now is taking that talent to the Final Four.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne drives around LSU guard Hailey Van Lith during the fourth quarter of their Sweet 16 game

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne (20) drives around LSU guard Hailey Van Lith during the fourth quarter of their Sweet 16 game Saturday in Albany, N.Y.

(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

“That’s my job in this offseason to figure out how we can earn more, and what does that look like from my leadership, what does it look like from the growth within the players, what does it look like in our player development and team development for these high-pressured moments,” Close said.

“I think that has to be our next step, and we have to be able to … find ways to adjust, to pivot, to overcome, to conquer [in pursuit] of the excellence that we’re going for.”

If Dugalic returns, the Bruins could have four of their primary starters back in their bid to get past what’s continually become a lost weekend in the NCAA tournament.

“I mean, I think we’re capable of it, for sure,” sophomore point guard Kiki Rice said of achieving the long-awaited breakthrough. “We’re going to have to continue to learn about how to win close games like this because we’ve had a few tough games throughout this year that we’ve lost by a possession or two and it comes down to just a few possessions, but we’ll continue to use that experience from this year and build on it.”

For Jaquez, that means a relentless pursuit of enhancing her game so that she never has to feel this way again.

“I have a lot of things I want to improve on, to be honest — being a better defender, continuing to work on my shot,” Jaquez said. “The list is longer, but those are a few, but I think just using this to motivate me because I’m very disappointed.”

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