UCLA coach Cori Close wanted her team to get more out of its trip to the Bahamas last week than just some fun in the sun and competitive games.
So on Thanksgiving morning, the Bruins went to West End Primary school and distributed nearly 180 pairs of new shoes and socks.
“One of our core values is we want our players to leave UCLA as lifestyle givers and not lifestyle takers,” Close said. “It’s good for us to pause, we’re really fortunate, how we can serve someone else. It just is a feel-good kind of thing, gratitude and service. Everyone wins.”
Close and UCLA have partnered for the last few years with Samaritan’s Feet, an organization that gives shoes to children around the world. When the Bruins hosted Oklahoma two years ago, the Sooners brought 100 pairs of sneakers to distribute.
“Every year we have coached a game barefoot. The Oklahoma game was one of them,” Close said.
UCLA got the kids’ sizes ahead of time and had the shoes shipped to the island. Close said that the team does fundraising throughout the year to offset the cost of the sneakers.
It wasn’t just about distributing shoes, though. The team spent a few hours at the school, playing with the kids.
“They taught us dances, sang to us, it was an intimate one on one thing,” Close said. “If you ask the kids what their favorite part of the weekend was, they’d answer competing at the highest level even thought it was disappointing to lose to Notre Dame, and the shoe distribution.”
On the court, the Bruins had a somewhat successful weekend, beating Louisiana Tech before falling to No. 3 Notre Dame in overtime. That came nearly a week after the Bruins lost to No. 2 South Carolina by three points at home.
“We were one possession away in both games,” Close said. “One defensive rebound away from winning in regulation. The same thing against South Carolina, crucial time. For me, we didn’t earn it, get it done.”
Buoyed by the close losses, UCLA earned its first ranking in over a year Monday, coming into the poll at No. 24.
“Being ranked is a mixed bag,” Close said. “Being ranked is awesome because I really love my team and believe in who we’re growing into. We are a Top 25 basketball team. When you believe you have the substance to back that up, it’s nice to have them recognized. We’re for real. This team is committed to high level, determined to become an elite program.”
Last season, led one of the best freshmen classes in the country, UCLA was ranked in the preseason poll before dropping out the first week. The Bruins didn’t really hit their stride until the Pac-12 season and then rode that momentum to a post-season WNIT title.
That has helped them get off to a great start this year.
“We had to battle a lot, getting our confidence where we could go do that,” Close said. “Win three of six on the road, great crowds at Michigan, it was sold out at West Virginia. Feel what it’s like to win six games in a row. Thought it was a huge turning point for us.”