Passion fuels the UCLA women’s basketball team. March burst of madness

Before the May chaos hit the Pauly Pavilion this week, Corey Close gathered her team on the center court at the end of training. This is the time of year when teams that remember and embrace their identity are the most successful. University of California at Los Angeles the head coach reminded her players. This foundation helps overcome the inevitable challenges of the NCAA Tournament.

The Bruins, she assured them, knew who they were.

“Defense, rebounds,” Close said, “and a game of passion.”

The third category is the secret Success at UCLA. Fueled by alternative statistics of typically intangible actions, No. 4 seeded Bruins return to NCAA Tournament after year-long absence Host number 13 places Sacramento State on Saturday at 20:30 in the first round of the Greenville 1 region at the Pauley Pavilion. The game airs on ESPN2 and the winner becomes player #1. 5 Oklahoma or not. 12 Portland, Monday.

UCLA tracks seven gambling categories that do not appear in traditional rankings. The list has grown since Close first adopted this strategy when she was hired by UCLA in 2011, and now the Bruins are counting assists, assisted box-outs, attacks, deflections, off-the-ice rebounds, goals scored without movement after the pass is received and 50-50 balls.

Alumnus assistant Jaylynn Penn, who played for the Bruins last season, counts every passionate game during a game using a pen, piece of paper and pad on the bench. The team’s goal is 75 in each game. UCLA’s best performance this season is 79 against Oregon State and 78 against Oregon State. The Bruins won both games at the Pauley Pavilion.

“Trying to honor everything [things] coaches know this leads to winning games that don’t show up in the stats,” Close said.

older Charisma Osborne leads the Bruins in scoring with 15.5 points. Forward Emily BessoirUCLA’s top rebounder with 5.8 rebounds per game, excelled in the Pac-12 Tournament with four consecutive double figures and was named to the All-Tournament Team along with Osbourne and the freshman. Kiki Rice.

But when it comes to passionate plays, Camryn Brown and Lena Sontag are the stars.

Brown Sr. is averaging three points per game. Her career scoring record is nine. She was also named the team’s Passionate Player nine times this season, sharing the team lead with Sontag.

Sontag, the 6-foot-3 forward, feels like the “passionate player of the century,” according to Osborne.

UCLA forward Lina Sontag (left) attempts to block a shot by Arizona defenseman Shayna Pellington during the Wildcats' Feb. 20 win.  3.

UCLA forward Lina Sontag (left) attempts to block a shot by Arizona defenseman Shayna Pellington during the Wildcats’ Feb. 20 win. 3.

(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

“If you see your stats and they’re not great, it can be a little disappointing at times, but seeing your passion play it really lifts my spirits.”

— Lina Sontag, UCLA forward

“Her ability to track the ball and get deflected, especially at her height, is incredible,” Close said of the German freshman. “Best thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sontag averaged 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. But it’s not uncommon for her to rack up 15 to 18 passionate games to win a team award. She had one game with 24 this season.

Coaches have always told Sontag, a regular for Germany’s youth teams, that she excels at deflecting the ball and cheating, but she’s never seen it measured the way UCLA does. Her focus on gambling at UCLA took her game to the next level.

“If you see your stats and they’re not good, it can be a bit frustrating at times,” Sontag said, “but seeing your passion play really lifts my spirits.”

Long before she landed her first head coaching position, Close decided that tracking and celebrating small games would be an important part of her program. The Bruins recognize the player who shows the most passion for each game by showing a brief overview of their games during the meeting before the next game. By sharing praise with more than just the top scorer or rebounder, teammates see the value of influencing the game in other ways.

“You’re celebrating what kind of teammate you want to be,” Close said, noting that Osbourne, who is the team’s leading scorer and a potential first-round WNBA draft pick, is also the team’s best screener. “When you appreciate it and your best players appreciate it, I really think it breeds the dedication and value of teamwork that we all know leads to wins at big moments.”

Penn, who joined the Bruins as an Indiana alum last season, tracks every passionate game on a chart as he plays. She tells Close during each media timeout how many the Bruins have, and the coaches stress whether the team needs to maintain the current pace or pick it up for the next segment. When a team’s goal is in sight, players sometimes call on Penn to be lenient on more objective categories like off-ice rebounds or 50-50 balls. She answers with a sideways glance.

These numbers don’t lie.