When UCLA takes the court Wednesday to open its season, there will be no fans in Pauley Pavilion to cheer on a top-10 team. The band won’t play as the team runs out from the tunnel. Cheerleaders won’t wave pompoms and flags.
Instead, nine UCLA players will stand shoulder to shoulder in a mostly empty gym. That’s all these Bruins need.
“I feel like we're all soldiers,” freshman forward Emily Bessoir said. “Each of us needs the other to stay healthy, to give their best in practice, to get better as a team.”
Amid pandemics, lawsuits and quarantines, players at UCLA and USC are relying on their bond with teammates to pull through the season that, starting Wednesday, will have more unforeseen turns ahead. The No. 9-ranked Bruins start against Cal State Fullerton at 2 p.m., while the Trojans open at Galen Center at 1 p.m. against Loyola Marymount.
USC will play its first game only one week after finishing a 14-day quarantine. Just when the Trojans were gaining momentum during their delayed preseason workouts, a single positive test took them from the court to their individual rooms again. Instead of scrimmaging with one another, players were doing sit-ups, push-ups and squats at home by themselves.
To keep players connected during the sudden quarantine, coaches organized a phone tree. Players were assigned one new teammate to call every day, asking a series of new non-basketball questions aimed at getting to know one another. Head coach Mark Trakh was shocked to learn none of his players knew who Bruce Springsteen is.
“We had to bond and find a way,” Trakh said. “I think they found a way to stay together.”
Seven days removed from a quarantine, Trakh said he couldn’t have expectations for what his team might look like when it took the floor Wednesday. He plans to keep it simple and just let them play.
That strategy likely includes a heavy dose of sophomore Alissa Pili, who was named Pac-12 freshman of the year last season after averaging 16.3 points and eight rebounds per game. The 6-foot forward was an almost unstoppable force in the paint last year, shooting 56.8% on two-point shots, but added a strong perimeter game to her skill set this year.
“She was really good last year, but we’re anticipating for her to be really good this year,” junior guard Desiree Caldwell said, stretching out the syllables for emphasis. “I just can’t wait to give her the ball and get out of the way.”
Like the Trojans, UCLA brings back big star power with preseason AP All-American Michaela Onyenwere. With Onyenwere leading the way, the Bruins return almost 80% of their scoring and 95% of their rebounding with four of five starters back.
“The circumstances of training may be different, but the personnel and the ways in which we can get stops, fight hard for each other, score the ball on the other end, we’ve still got a lot to get excited about,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “I’ve got a lot of minutes logged, I’m not that worried about that.”
Close’s largest worry might be who she has available to play those minutes. The Bruins are short-handed after guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson opted out because of COVID-19 concerns and immigration complications from the pandemic prevented two of their freshmen from entering the country. Australians Gemma Potter and Izzy Anstey are awaiting a decision on a lawsuit filed on behalf of international athletes at several universities who are unable to enter the country without an in-person class.
Canadian sophomore Brynn Masikewich is rehabilitating an injury at home before joining the Bruins later this season. They have just eight scholarship players, along with walk-on Eliana Sigal.
Close carefully plans her practices to ensure her team works smarter, not necessarily just harder. UCLA has allowed the team to use single rooms on the road and chartered flights for travel to mitigate risk as positive COVID-19 cases are spiking just as the season begins.
At USC, the motto is “better safe than sorry,” Caldwell said. The guard who averaged a team-high 3.1 assists last season, said the juxtaposition of trying to function normally during a decidedly not normal time is overwhelming, but she appreciates the accommodations taken by USC to make starting the season possible. Finishing it will come down to staying flexible.
“This is difficult,” Trakh said, “but it doesn’t mean you have to let it beat you.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.