IImar’I Thomas was having a college career at Cincinnati most could only dream of. The forward won the AAC player of the year, was a three-time all-conference first-team selection and won the league’s freshman of the year. She was one of just two 50-point scorers at the school. The other is Oscar Robinson.
So with one year of eligibility remaining, why would Thomas leave the program that helped her grow into one of the best scorers in the country?
To find a place that could better prepare her for the professional ranks, the UCLA graduate transfer said. And she wanted to chase a championship, because despite her numerous accomplishments at Cincinnati, an NCAA tournament berth wasn’t among them.
UCLA, which has gone to the last five NCAA tournaments and advanced to the regional semifinal four times, provided an ideal landing spot for Thomas, who is one of eight new players for the No. 20 Bruins this year. Despite a completely remade roster, the program’s reputation and expectation for tournament success remain the same.
Coach Cori Close, entering her 11th year at UCLA, added four Division I transfers during the offseason. But don’t get used to it. Close doesn’t favor the transfer portal as a long-term way to build a program. This year’s influx came in response to an abnormal year.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s recruiting restrictions that prevented in-person recruiting for more than a year were especially harsh for UCLA coaches. About 80% of UCLA’s recruiting targets were in the Eastern time zone, and convincing high school prospects to move across the country without a visit proved difficult. Dominque Onu, a guard from Florida, is UCLA’s only 2021 recruit. She signed last November and enrolled early to play sparingly last season because COVID-19 canceled her senior season of high school.
“As any leader, it’s my responsibility to pivot and go, OK, how do we continue to have championship progress?” Close said. “And it was very clear the transfer portal was the way to do it.”
The Bruins added a former five-star prospect in Angela Dugalić, a Serbian Olympian who played in all 24 games for Oregon as a freshman, and scooped up Indiana guard Jaelynn Penn, a four-year starter who hit a game-winning shot against UCLA as a sophomore in Pauley Pavilion. Dugalić is expected to miss several weeks because of a knee contusion.
Thomas is the bucket-getter. The Oakland native averaged 23.7 points per game last year, ranking ninth among Division I players. Her 51-point performance against East Carolina was the most points of any Division I basketball player — man or woman — in a single game last season.
Adding a go-to scorer was a necessity for the Bruins, who lost Michaela Onyenwere. The forward led the Bruins in scoring for the past three seasons and ranks fourth on UCLA’s all-time scoring list. While Onyenwere thrived off her raw athleticism, the 5-foot-11 Thomas has made her mark with strength in the post.
“We just know that if Mari’s open, we better not miss her,” guard Natalie Chou said, patting Thomas on the shoulder. “If we get it into her, it’s an automatic bucket.”
Gina Conti, a former Wake Forest guard, is the quarterback tasked with distributing the ball to UCLA’s potent weapons. The All-ACC second team honoree led Wake Forest to its second NCAA tournament berth in school history last year while averaging 13.8 points and 4.6 assists per game. She is second on the school’s all-time assists list.
Getting a true point guard to run the offense was Close’s top priority while exploring the transfer portal. The Bruins needed someone to take the load off Charisma Osborne. The junior from the Windward School seems more naturally suited for the shooting guard role but handled point guard duties last year as well. She averaged career highs in points (17) and assists (3.8) as a sophomore.
Close said Osborne, needing a backcourt mate, was as influential in Conti’s recruiting pitch as anyone on the coaching staff. The coach boasts that hers is one of the best guard duos in the country, although Conti will miss the start of the season after undergoing foot surgery that will keep her out several weeks.
“Not that we haven’t had options in the past, but we have so much talent on this team,” Osborne said. “There’s so many different people we can look to, look to to score, look to to play defense.”
Onyenwere and Osborne, UCLA’s top two scorers, accounted for 50.5% of UCLA’s points for the short-handed Bruins last year, when they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the first time UCLA failed to reach the Sweet 16 since 2015.
The Bruins played the majority of the year with seven or eight available players because of injuries and the pandemic. Even with this year’s preseason injuries, including a season-ending knee injury to sophomore forward Emily Bessoir, they have a wealth of options. Guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson returned from their one-year COVID-19 opt-outs. After missing her freshman season because of pandemic immigration rules, Australian forward Izzy Anstey gives the Bruins a physical rim protector.
Close called this her most talented roster at UCLA. The Bruins hope it can turn into one of her most successful years as the program is closing in on elite teams, but has yet to solidify itself as a national championship contender.
“My urgency is to get closer and closer to our potential,” Close said. “We say champions are made here from the inside out and I think that I want our mindset to be a little bit more championship-like. I want our habits to be a little more championship-like. I want our being an elite teammate to be a little more championship-like. And then I think those breakthroughs are going to happen.”
2021-22 UCLA women’s basketball schedule
Nov. 10: vs. Pepperdine; 18: vs. Cal State Northridge; 21: vs. Virginia; 26: vs. Kent State (Estero, Fla.); 27: vs. South Dakota or UMass (Estero, Fla.); 28: Gulf Coast Showcase (Estero, Fla.)
Dec. 5: vs. San Jose State; 11: vs. UConn (Newark, N.J.); 16: vs. Texas Southern; 19: vs. Ohio State; 21: vs. Cal State Bakersfield; 28: vs. USC; 31: vs. Arizona State
Jan. 2: vs. Arizona; 7: at Utah; 9: at Colorado; 14: vs. Washington; 16: vs. Washington State; 22: at USC; 28: at Oregon; 30: at Oregon State
Feb. 3: vs. Stanford; 6: vs. California; 11: at Washington State; 13: at Washington; 18: vs. Colorado; 20: vs. Utah; 24: at Arizona; 26: at Arizona State
March 2-6: Pac-12 tournament