Nov. 5, 2011
By Amy Hughes
It is a season of change for UCLA women's basketball.
With first-year head coach Cori Close concluding pre-season practices and preparations for the 2011-12 season nearly complete, the team's lone senior leads the way for this year's Bruins.
Rebekah Gardner's role on the court during her first three seasons at UCLA has been one of a role player. She has played in 97 games, starting 19, and has averaged just under 20 minutes per game played and 6.4 points per game for her career.
"It's completely different," said Gardner of her senior season. "Each year that I've been here, I've had to step into a new role. And each year, I've had to get used to a new position. This year, it is obviously a bigger role but I'm definitely willing to step up and do it. It's just something new."
Gardner became the team's only senior in mid-September when pre-season Wade Trophy Watch List member Jasmine Dixon suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon during a team workout. The injury will likely keep her out the entire 2011-12 season. Redshirt junior Atonye Nyingifa came in to UCLA with Dixon and Gardner, but Gardner is the only team member playing her final season of eligibility in 2011-12.
"Rebekah is my only senior," said Close. "She is honestly one of my biggest inspirations right now. I'm here to build a long-term elite national program. I have a lot of time to do that, but Rebekah doesn't have any more time. I want to be so fervent and relentless this year to find creative ways to make her senior year so special and good. She is a very big source of motivation for me."
The Bruins have just 12 players on their roster, including Dixon, and all will be expected to take on new roles.
"Honestly, there is not one person on the team who is playing a role they've ever played before," said Close. "They are all having to step up and bust out of their old shells and create new identities for themselves. No one any more important than what Rebekah has done and continues to do on a daily basis."
"This is my last go-round," said Gardner. "We have a new coach and Jas isn't going to be playing with us this year. We're all in new roles. It's almost like a whole new team. We're developing a new identity this season, and I think people are able to step up into larger roles and contribute more."
This is Gardner's second transition to a new coach in her four-year Bruin career. She was recruited to Westwood by Kathy Olivier, but played her first three seasons under Nikki Caldwell. Now, Gardner is blazing the trail for her teammates to acclimate to Close and her style of basketball.
"It's just part of basketball," said Gardner of the multiple transitions. "It's been a hard transition, but Coach Cori has made it as easy as she can for everyone to get used to it."
"She was one of the first to come to me and say `team chemistry is getting better, and I'm really having fun and enjoying myself,'" said Close of Gardner. "That means a lot. When you're in a transition year, it's not easy on the players. It's not easy on the staff. You're all trying to learn each other. She is one of the first ones to really bring encouragement to the staff and really buy in and say `I'm with you. I'm excited.'
"As that happens, more and more people go `Me too! Me too!,'" continued Close. "In not only my professional transition but my personal transition to being the UCLA head coach and trying to establish my own culture, Rebekah has been really invaluable and has meant a lot to me."
"In order for everyone to get on board, as a leader, I had to get on first," said Gardner. "It's difficult, but it's something that you have to be willing to do. When younger people see one person get on board or a few people get on board, it's contagious. It makes things easier for the coaches and the team as a whole."
Gardner's comfort with that critical leadership role has impressed her new head coach.
"She has a soft-spoken personality, but she is learning to step up and hold her teammates accountable," said Close. "To say what she really wants for this team and this year and this program. She is willing to fight for that and do that vocally as well as by example. I think she has always been a nice young lady, and she's been a hard worker. Now she's taking responsibility for people more than herself, and she's inspiring and holding them accountable to higher levels."
That leadership role will be necessary both on and off of the court in 2011-12. Gardner can play all guard positions, and most players on the team will be relied upon for their versatility. For Gardner, that transition will be from a role player, getting open shots because teammates are double-teamed, to creating her own shots and maintaining her level of play with increased playing time.
Said Close, "Now, [Rebekah] is having to create her own shot. She's having to take the most important shot. The most pressurized shot. She has to make hard ones. That's not only a different skill, it's a different mentality and a different leadership state."
"I'm taking on whatever the team needs, whether it's scoring or rebounding," said Gardner. "Coach Cori has talked to me about taking a certain number of shots per game, getting on the boards and being solid defensively. Doing everything I can to help the team."
Close looks for big things from her team's only senior during the upcoming season.
"Rebekah is just a wonderful human being and student-athlete," said Close. "She's a responsible student who goes to class and gets her work done. She is kind and gracious, and it doesn't matter who you are, she always treats you with dignity and respect. If any alum or fan wants to look for someone who is handling her business in a way that makes UCLA Athletics proud, as a student, a person and an athlete, Rebekah Gardner is someone who is carrying the torch really well."
Despite the unexpected changes of the 2011 off-season, Gardner's focus is sharp on the upcoming campaign. She expects nothing but the best for her Bruins this season.
"We are going to do great things this year," concluded Gardner.