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UCLA coach Cori Close finds joy in Christ ahead of Sweet 16 matchup vs. South Carolina

The UCLA women’s basketball team is becoming a regular at the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, and it’s thanks in large part to the Bruins’ head coach, Cori Close.

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Close has been at UCLA since the 2011-12 season, leading the Bruins to what is now five Sweet 16s. The program had only three such appearances before her arrival. After four straight from 2016-19 (advancing to the Elite Eight in 2018), Close has her team back in the Sweet 16 this year after an 82-73 victory against Oklahoma in which Charisma Osborne scored a career-high 36 points.

The opponent now standing in the No. 4-seeded Bruins’ way of a second Elite Eight appearance under Close? No. 1-seeded and undefeated powerhouse South Carolina, led by coach Dawn Staley and superstar Aliyah Boston. The Gamecocks have won their first two NCAA Tournament games by a combined 63 points.

Saturday’s matchup won’t be the first for the two teams this year. South Carolina scraped out a nine-point win on Nov. 29 at home against the Bruins. But the fact that UCLA led in the fourth quarter and South Carolina only held a two-point lead with 3:38 left in the game gives Close and her players hope, as well as some added motivation to knock off the defending national champions.

According to the L.A. Times, Close said that Staley had a message for her in the handshake line after that November dogfight: “We will meet again.”

Now that Staley’s words have come to pass and the opportunity for a monumental upset is here, Close doesn’t want her players to buckle under the pressure.

“I donโ€™t want them to play tight,” she said in another L.A. Times article. “I want them to play free. I want them to play focused and I want them to play with great gratitude and joy.”

For Close, her joy is rooted ultimately in her faith in Christ, not in her success as a basketball coach. Not even in a win against a No. 1 seed to get to the Elite Eight, if the Bruins could pull it off.

Close was a guest on the Sports Spectrum Podcast in October 2020, and amid the discussion about basketball and faith, she reflected on a “Proverbs Challenge” she did during the COVID pandemic lockdown.

“You have to read the proverb. You have to pray one of the verses, write one of the verses and share one of the verses. You have one per day,” she explained of the challenge. “… It’s brought some clarity in a very complicated time.”

Every day, in an effort to remember the many ways God has shown His kindness to her throughout her life, she also writes down 10 things she is thankful for.

“I really think my true Christ-following journey started my freshman year of college,” she explained on the podcast. “I went to UC-Santa Barbara and I played basketball there, and basketball in reality was really my god. I think I was about nine weeks in, I was starting, everything was going great. And I turned and ruptured my Achilles’ tendon. It just exploded and I didn’t know what to do.”

In the pain and confusion during the aftermath of the injury, Close said she received a note that read, “Sometimes when you’re a real doer, God lets you get to the end of your rope where your only choice is to let go and let Him catch you.”

“I think that’s the first time I sort of ever sort of let go and said, ‘I can’t do this, God. I need You.’ And He sort of let me crawl into His lap and I said, ‘OK, I want to follow You and I want to learn what it means to abide in You โ€” to have a relationship, to be obedient.’ I think that’s really when a more dependent relationship really began.”

As she prepares her team to take on South Carolina on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET in Greenville, South Carolina, in a game many have already assumed the Gamecocks will win, Close is at peace. She knows no upset victory could ever supersede the joy of eternal communion with Him, and no crushing defeat could ever quench it.

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