Before March chaos descended on Pauley Pavilion this week, Cori Close gathered her team at center court at the end of practice. At this time of year, the UCLA coach reminded his players that teams that remember and embrace their identity have the most success. That foundation helps them get through the inevitable NCAA tournaments.
The Bruins, he reassured them, know their identity.
“Defense, rebounding,” Close said, “and passion plays.”
The third category is the secret of UCLA’s success. Powered by an alternate normal action intangible stat sheet, the No. 4 seed Bruins return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence to host No. 13 Sacramento State in the first round in Greenville on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. 1 Region at Pauley Pavilion. The game is on ESPN2, with the winner advancing to play either No. 5 Oklahoma or No. 12 Portland on Monday.
UCLA tracks seven categories of passion games that don’t appear in traditional box scores. The list has grown since Close implemented the strategy when he was hired at UCLA in 2011, and the Bruins now count screen assists, box assists, carries, deflections, out-of-bounds rebounds, baskets scored without making a layup. the pass is received and the ball is 50-50.
Graduate assistant Jaelynn Penn, who played for the Bruins last season, recounts each pass during the game using a pen, paper and whiteboard on the bench. The team’s goal is 75 in each game. UCLA’s best performances this season are 79 against Oregon State and 78 against Oregon. The Bruins won both games at Pauley Pavilion.
“Trains try to honor all the (things) they know lead to winning plays that don’t show up on the stat sheets,” Close said.
Senior Charisma Osborne leads the Bruins with 15.5 points. Forward Emily Bessoir, UCLA’s leading rebounder with 5.8 boards per game, exploded in the Pac-12 tournament with four consecutive double-digit scoring efforts and was named to the all-tournament team along with Osborne and Kiki Rice.
But when it comes to passion plays, Camryn Brown and Lina Sontag are the protagonists.
Brown, a senior, averages three points per game. His career high score is nine. They have also been named the team’s most passionate player nine times this season, tied with Sontag for the team lead.
Sontag, a 6-foot-3 forward, is the “passion player of the century,” Osborne said.
UCLA forward Lina Sontag, left, tries to block a shot by Arizona guard Shaina Pellington during the Wildcats’ win on Feb. 3.
(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
“If you see your stats and they’re not good, it can be a bit frustrating at times, but seeing your passions play out, that really makes me happy.”
– Lina Sontag, UCLA forward
“His ability to track the ball and get deflections, especially at his size, is tremendous,” Close said of the German freshman. “The best I’ve ever seen.”
Sontag is averaging 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. But it is not unusual for the passion to win the team prize to be indented between the ages of 15 and 18. He had one game with 24 this season.
Coaches always told Sontag, a regular contributor to Germany’s youth teams, that he excelled at deflecting the ball and making hustle plays, but he never saw it quantified the way UCLA does. Focusing on passion plays at UCLA has brought his game to another level.
“If you look at your stats and they’re not good, it can be a little frustrating sometimes,” Sontag said, “but to see your passions play out, that really makes me happy.”
Close decided long before landing his first head coaching job that pursuing and celebrating small plays would be an important pillar of his program. The Bruins recognize that the player who gets the most passion plays each game, showing a highlight reel of their plays in a huddle before the next game. By sharing praise beyond the leading scorer or rebounder, teammates see the value of influencing the game in other ways.
“You celebrate the kind of teammate you want to be,” Close said, noting that Osborne, the team’s leading scorer and potential WNBA first-round pick, is the team’s best display. “When you value that and your best players value that, I really think it creates a selflessness and a value of teamwork that we all know leads to wins in big moments.”
Penn, who joined the Bruins last season as a grad transfer from Indiana, tracks each pass play on a board throughout the game. At every media timeout, it’s been reported to the Close how many Bruins they have and the coaches are stressing whether the team should maintain their current pace or take it for the next segment. When the team’s goal is in sight, players sometimes ask Penn to get comfortable with more objective categories like outside rebounding or 50-50 balls. He responds with a sideways glance.
These numbers don’t lie.