In a matter of moments, Michaela Onyenwere made a lasting impression on Dean Lockwood.
Tennessee’s assistant coach was on a women’s basketball recruiting visit to see Onyenwere in Aurora, Colo., and was impressed with the way she ran through a basic afternoon workout.
“She was going up these steps like her best friend was trapped in a fire in a third-story apartment,” Lockwood said. “You could tell this kid loves to work.”
The 5-foot-11 forward ultimately signed with UCLA in the fall of 2016. Undeterred, Tennessee signed four other players, who comprised the No. 1 ranked recruiting class that year.
Two of those UT signees – sophomores Evina Westbrook and Rennia Davis – will line up opposite Onyenwere as starters when the teams meet Saturday in a first-round NCAA tournament game in College Park, Md.
In terms of overall records and statistics, the two teams have an uncanny resemblance. But No. 6 seed UCLA (20-12) has lost just three times since the last week of January – all to top-10 ranked teams – and won six in a row at one point. In watching video of the Bruins, UT coach Holly Warlick noticed a reason for their improvement.
“The more I watch them,” Warlick said, “they understand the harder they play and the more effort they give, they beat teams.”
Onyenwere has contributed to UCLA’s effort by blossoming into an All-Pac 12 player, who leads the team in scoring (18.2 points per game) and rebounding (8.1). She’s one of only four players to average at least 20 points per game in conference play. She’s reached that point total in eight of the last 13 games.
Conversely, No. 11 seed Tennessee (19-12) has gone 8-11 since Jan. 1 and squeezed into the 64-team NCAA field with the next-to-last at-large bid. The Lady Vols’ ongoing inconsistency has mystified Warlick and had her fielding questions about her job security during a media gathering on Thursday.
She summarized athletic director Phillip Fulmer’s recent conversations with her to be “Good luck in your game.”
“I can’t worry about something I can’t control," Warlick said. “All I can control is getting this basketball team ready for the next game and that’s UCLA. It’s kind of like I can’t control whether we get in the tournament or not. We just have to put it out there, our best effort out there.”
To re-emphasize her point of view, Warlick said, “I’m worried about my 90-year-old mother not falling. I’m doing my job. It’s to get these young ladies ready for the next game.”
Tennessee’s effort will be dependent, to a large extent, on the play of both Westbrook and Davis. They’ve been starters for two years and made strides this season in terms of improvement.
Westbrook, a 6-0 point guard, worked on her shooting mechanics with UT men’s coach Rick Barnes during the offseason and nearly doubled her per-game scoring average to a team-leading 15.2 per game. She’s increased her assists (154-143) while reducing her turnovers (95-121).
Davis, a 6-2 forward, earned second-team All-SEC honors. She increased her per-game scoring average by nearly three to 14.7 and became the team’s leading rebounder at 7.7 per game.
Lockwood believes that a player’s development is dependent on a number of factors, including their respective circumstances. They’re not all running up the same set of steps.
That said, the harder you run, the better your prospects.
“I think I know for myself that the team goes as I go,” Westbrook said. “So the kind of energy that I bring, my team is going to feed off that. So I have to come with 100 percent, 110 percent.”