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USC finds momentum after COVID-19 break as UCLA’s battle continues

USC finds momentum after COVID-19 break as UCLA's battle continues

USC came back in style from his COVID-19 hiatus.

After knocking out previously undefeated Arizona in their second game on Sunday after a three-week hiatus, USC players received a special gift from the coach Lindsay Gottlieba. Stacks of orange Nike shoeboxes were wheeled onto the field at Galen Center after practice on Tuesday — the team’s first since a 76-67 win over the Wildcats — and players were punched to the chest and high-fives as they hit the cardinal and gold low-top Nike unveiled Dunkt.

The delayed Christmas gifts and signature win eased the pain of an otherwise difficult last month for USC as COVID-19 protocols forced the team off the field. With new kicks and new confidence, the Trojans hope to carry their momentum into a home series against Washington State on Friday at 7 p.m. and Washington at noon on Sunday.

“There’s a jump in the room when you win a match like that,” Gottlieb said. “It’s really up to me and our coaching staff to turn that into a consistent willingness to play with the kind of goal we had against Arizona.”

While the Trojans can enjoy their first top-five win since 2014, UCLA struggles to find his balance after a four-week break. After a December 11 loss to Connecticut, the Bruins did not return to game action until January 9, losing 71-63 to Colorado. The pandemic, coupled with a rash of preseason injuries, has put UCLA’s once-promising season to the test.

“Looks like the hits just keep on coming,” said coach Cori Close, whose team was ranked 20th in the Associated Press’s preseason poll. “But the reality is that I can’t focus on that. I can’t give my energy to things I can’t control.”

UCLA will have its first home games since December 5 this weekend, with Washington at 7 p.m. Friday and Washington State on Sunday. General fans are not allowed to attend games at Galen Center and Pauley Pavilion due to the national COVID-19 wave that began last month.

Positive coronavirus tests drew closer at UCLA after the team returned from Newark, NJ, where the Bruins played UConn in a nationally televised game. UCLA’s men’s team, which shares a practice facility with the women, began canceling games on Dec. 17. The women announced their first cancellation the following day.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne shoots over Connecticut guard Christyn Williams during a game on Dec. 11.

(Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)

The positive tests trickled in every day. Every time UCLA thought it could take the field, two more players had to go into isolation. Six of the eight players who played against UConn tested positive alongside several staffers, Close said. The remaining two players avoided the virus, but only until Christmas, which only extended the break.

USC thought it was safe. When Long Beach State’s COVID-19 protocols forced the cancellation of a non-conference game, Gottlieb began looking for a replacement opponent.

Then surveillance tests revealed multiple positive cases in USC’s team. Although they were asymptomatic when tested, several players developed symptoms during isolation, Gottlieb said.

Instead of going home for the Christmas holidays, players had to stay in hotels alone. The first-year head coach and her four-year-old son Jordan delivered care packages to them, but Jordan couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see the players in person.

“That was just really mentally hard, I think, for me, as a parent, as a coach, to have kids be sick in a hotel room and not be able to go home,” Gottlieb said. “We really went through it. So when you were done with that I just talked to the players about A) appreciating our ability to do what we do even more, recognizing how difficult that time was for some of them and only then starting to get the mindset to go back come to play.”

Both teams returned to action under difficult conditions, playing on the road in Colorado. The Buffalos (13-0) are the only remaining undefeated team in the country.

The Bruins, who still have no base guard Gina Conti (foot) and transfer forward Angela Dugalić (knee), had just eight players. UCLA showed its defensive prowess by holding Colorado at 16.7% by firing in an ugly first quarter, but declined as the game progressed.

Freshman attacker Izzy Anstey anchored UCLA’s defensive effort with a career-high 13 rebounds. The Australian junior national team member was the “highlight of the game against Colorado,” Close said, as she is returning to form after failing to train last year during Australia’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns.

Connecticut security guard Christyn Williams, left, drives against UCLA forward Izzy Anstey during a game on Dec. 11.

Connecticut security guard Christyn Williams, left, drives against UCLA forward Izzy Anstey during a game on Dec. 11.

(Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)

“The future is very bright for Izzy,” said Close. “I think she’s going to be a big impact player for us. She’s got a high IQ and she’s got a mean streak and an edge that I love.”

USC recovered from a 71-58 loss against Colorado on January 7 at then-No. 4 Arizona at Galen Center two days later. Junior Alyson Miura had four three-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Trojans get away, while Gottlieb praised her players for running the scouting report and finishing possessions with more goal than against Colorado.

“We didn’t look at their name or rankings,” said striker Rayah Marshall, who was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. “We just came out and played and did what we had to do. I feel like we can do that with a lot of other teams if we come out with the same hunger and eagerness to win.”

The win is an important part of USC’s postseason resumption as the Trojans hope to make their first NCAA tournament since 2014.

The Bruins have just one win over a Power 5 team — a 69-57 win over Virginia on Nov. 21 — and lost chances to improve their resumes with a canceled game against Ohio State and rescheduled home games against Arizona State. and Arizona.

UCLA’s streak of five consecutive NCAA tournament berths is in jeopardy after an inconsistent start to the year, but the Bruins aren’t changing their usual route for March just yet.

“I plan to compete in the NCAA tournament,” said Close. “We just need to figure out how to get some of these wins.”


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