USC finds momentum after COVID-19 pause as UCLA's struggles continue

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Southern California coach Lindsay Gottlieb, left, and players celebrate as they defeat Arizona.
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, left, and players celebrate after a victory over previously undefeated Arizona on Sunday. The Trojans look to keep up the momentum this weekend against Washington State and Washington. (David Swanson / Associated Press)

USC came back from its COVID-19 pause in style.

After knocking off previously undefeated Arizona last Sunday in their second game after a three-week hiatus, USC players received a special gift from coach Lindsay Gottlieb. Stacks of orange Nike shoeboxes were wheeled onto the court at Galen Center after practice on Tuesday — the team’s first since a 76-67 win over the Wildcats — and players chest-bumped and high-fived as they revealed cardinal and gold low-top Nike Dunks.

The delayed holiday presents and signature victory eased the sting of an otherwise difficult past month for USC as COVID-19 protocols forced the team off the court. But finding solid footing after long layoffs hasn’t been easy for USC or UCLA.

Instead of maintaining momentum from their first top-five win since 2014, the Trojans opened their second Pac-12 weekend with a 71-63 home loss to Washington State on Friday. The Bruins, after losing 71-63 to Colorado in their first game back from a four-week layoff, rebounded with a 63-48 win against Washington at Pauley Pavilion on Friday.

When asked whether UCLA’s first victory since Dec. 5 could be a turning point in the season, coach Cori Close told reporters, “I sure hope so.”

Considering how many unforeseen turns the year has already taken, the conservative statement is appropriate.

The Bruins (6-4, 1-1 Pac-12) started the season ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll. Preseason injuries to three potential starters whittled the roster down to seven or eight available players each game. After losing 71-61 to Connecticut on Dec. 11, a coronavirus outbreak shut the program down until Jan. 9.

“It just seems the hits just keep coming,” Close said before the weekend's games. “But the reality is I can’t focus on that. I can’t give my energy to things that I just can’t control.”

UCLA will try to complete a weekend sweep against Washington State on Sunday at noon while USC (8-5, 1-2 Pac-12) faces Washington. General fans are barred from attending games at Galen Center and Pauley Pavilion because of the national COVID-19 surge that began last month.

Positive coronavirus tests started closing in on UCLA after the team returned from Newark, N.J., where the Bruins played Connecticut in a nationally televised game. The UCLA 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 on Dec. 11.
UCLA guard Charisma Osborne shoots over Connecticut guard Christyn Williams on Dec. 11. (Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)

The positive tests trickled in day by day. Every time UCLA thought it could take the court, two more players had to enter isolation. Six of the eight players who played against Connecticut tested positive in addition to several staff members, Close said. The remaining two players avoided the virus, but only until Christmas, which only extended the pause.

USC thought it stayed safe. When Long Beach State’s COVID-19 protocols forced the cancellation of a nonconference game, Gottlieb started looking for a substitute opponent.

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

Instead of returning home for Christmas break, players had to stay in hotels alone. The first-year head coach and her 4-year-old son, Jordan, delivered care packages to them, but Jordan didn’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 just have kids be sick in a hotel room and not be able to go home,” Gottlieb said. “We really went through it. So once you’re through that, I just talked to the players about A) being able to appreciate even more our ability to do what we do, recognizing how hard that time was for some of them and then just starting the mentality of coming back to being able to play.”

Both teams returned to action in tough conditions, playing on the road at Colorado. The Buffaloes (13-1) were the last undefeated team in the country before losing to Stanford on Friday.

The Bruins, who are still without starting point guard Gina Conti (foot) and transfer forward Angela Dugalić (knee), had only eight players. UCLA showed its defensive prowess by holding Colorado to 16.7% shooting in an ugly first quarter but wore down as the game went on.

Freshman forward 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 returns to form after not training during Australia’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns last year.

Connecticut guard Christyn Williams, left, drives against UCLA forward Izzy Anstey on Dec. 11.
Connecticut guard Christyn Williams, left, drives against UCLA forward Izzy Anstey on Dec. 11. (Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)

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

USC rallied from a 71-58 loss to Colorado on Jan. 7 to knock off 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 pull away as Gottlieb commended her players for executing the scouting report and finishing possessions with more purpose than against Colorado.

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

The victory is a major piece of USC's postseason resume as the Trojans hope to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014.

The Bruins are trying to make up for lose opportunities as COVID-19 protocols canceled a game against Ohio State and postponed home matchups against Arizona State and Arizona.

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

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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