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March 28, 2019

Cori Close

Kennedy Burke

Michaela Onyenwere

Albany, New York

THE MODERATOR: As you can see, we've been joined by Coach Close. Thank you very much for being here.

CORI CLOSE: Thank you for having me.

THE MODERATOR: As is customary, we'd ask you to begin with an opening statement, and we'll have the media ask questions following.

CORI CLOSE: You bet. Thank you so much for having us and thank you for covering our great game. I was just walking over here and thinking about what great coverage this is already getting. Just really excited for all the young women from the four teams that are going to get to have their stories told. Appreciate you all.

We're excited for the opportunity to play in such a great field. It's a great challenge for us, and really proud of our team's growth and what has had to happen for them to put themselves in this position. We're just excited to be here.

Q. Coach, you were 9-9 at one point after a loss to USC. Then it was a trip to Arizona-Arizona State. Was there something in between there or winning those games, or what basically happened that's led to this surge?
CORI CLOSE: Well, if I was smarter, I would have figured it out sooner so we could have turned the tide. I think it was a culmination of a lot of small choices that eventually hit a tipping point when we went to Arizona for that swing, to play Arizona State and Arizona. But I really think it was the commitment to the journey.

You know, coaches talk like that all the time, and sometimes old ladies like me need to be reminded from a team like this. Because really that's what we had to have, when it was really uncomfortable, when we weren't being rewarded, to stay committed to growing and giving every day. That's what I ask of them every single day when we start practice is: Do you have a plan to grow, and do you have a plan to give?

I think our chemistry really kept us in the mix that way to get us to that tipping point because they really enjoy each other, and I think the times in between practice and games, where they got to enjoy each other's company and experience what we call remember whens in our program, I think that really kept them going while they were giving and growing to get to the point where we were actually good because we weren't good for a long time.

I do think that weekend at Arizona and Arizona State was the tipping point where we earned a lot of confidence, but I don't think it was one thing. I think it was a series of really hard choices over a long period of time.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your travel from -- I assume you came from College Park to here.
CORI CLOSE: Correct.

Q. Is it a good or bad thing that you're basically a week and a half away from home?
CORI CLOSE: I think, given the alternative to go all the way back to L.A. and then come all the way back here, I think it's the right choice to come straight here. We're on spring break, so we don't have any classes, so we're not missing extensive class time by staying on the East Coast. I think it would have definitely been a detriment to our ability to be competing at the highest levels to have had to go cross-country again before we came up here.

But, yes, the next day after we won in College Park, we flew up here to Albany, and we have been enjoying your great city ever since.

Q. Hey, Cori, I was just wondering, even like at the Oregon-Oregon State home series, you had said at the kind of post-game presser that your team had the potential to make a deep run in the tournament. I was wondering if you had always kind of felt that your team would be able to end up here. And if so, what kind of inspired that faith early on even before you were sort of seeing the success that you've seen now?
CORI CLOSE: I think two things. I really am a strong believer that culture wins and that relationships are everything. I think I really have confidence in the relationships we've built with each individual player, and I knew what they brought not only from a skill potential standpoint, but from a heart level standpoint. And I also really believe in the culture that we've built and what we stand for.

Our word for the year back in August, our word for the year that we picked as a team was expectant. And I shared stories of teams in the past that lost a lot of fire power, that the next year with great determination and teamwork ended up being good or better, and people maybe didn't expect it.

So I think that, yes, I did have faith in this team. Now, I'm not going to lie. They were doubting moments in the midst when you start 3-5. It was not easy. It was not an easy journey. And I really give credit to our assistant coaches and support staff because there were many days when they kept me going, and they were relentless believers in our mission. And I think over time that was really instrumental.

But to answer your question, I did believe in this team. I thought we could be a more balanced team over the long haul. We spent a lot of time watching Jordin Canada and Monique Billings last year, and I think maybe we didn't experience as efficient teamwork as we could have. And I think we were forced to have that this year, and I think it's paid dividends in the NCAA Tournament because I think we are really harder to match up with.

Q. Two questions, Cori. One, what is your relationship with Geno and why the exchange of wine and stuff like that? And secondly, what makes you guys such a good offensive rebounding team? You're not overly big. You have good size, but why are you so good offensively rebounding?
CORI CLOSE: Well, first of all, I wouldn't say that Geno's my buddy or anything. I really -- I have a really big respect for who he is, and I have really sought, not just Geno, but his staff out. Last year I called Kris Daly in the spring and asked her to give me a brutally hard scouting report on my team. And just through the years -- they are at the pinnacle, right? And they have set the standard. And I really desire our program to grow to that level. So I would be foolish to not seek out their advice. And just have built a relationship way through the years when Jamelle Elliott was on the staff. A long time ago I had a friendship, still have a friendship with her.

But their entire staff has been wonderful through the years. So I just have really appreciated the way they have opened up their doors and I'm allowed -- our staff has flown back there to watch practice. I've gone back there two different times in addition to that. And you know, I do appreciate that he appreciates good wine as well, and it's been a fun exchange.

I wouldn't say we hang out, but I think I just have really appreciated that he's allowed me to learn and he's been willing to invest in me as a growing coach.

Oh, I'm sorry, rebounding. Oh, yeah, that. Rebounding, I think I have kids who understand who we are. We aren't the best shooting team in the country. We have to have each other's back, and at the same time, I don't want kids thinking about their shot. I want them to step up confidently. If it's a shot they practiced that they know they can make for our team, I want them to shoot with confidence, and one of the reasons that they can do that is they know they have the people behind them that if, by chance, they were to miss, they're going to pursue the rebound with everything they have and get us extra possessions.

And also your shooting percentage goes up tremendously on an offensive rebound, about 70 percent actually. Sometimes our best offense has been getting a decent first shot that's a predictable shot that we can go get a second opportunity, because that shooting percentage is pretty darn good.

Q. Coach, you talk about rebound, and you talk about shooting as well. What do you think your team has that can take down a team like UConn?
CORI CLOSE: Well, I think rebounding is a really big thing. If we get the same amount of possessions that UConn does, we'll lose. I think that the reality is they are so fluid, and they take really high percentage shots. They know each other really well. That's one of the things I admire most about their program over the years is just the fluidity of their offense. They don't run plays. They have playmakers out of a fluid system, and he's taught them to be -- to read and react so well, which I really admire. I don't want to have a program where we're like robots running from place to place.

It's not up to me to create, make every perfect call from the bench. I want to build players that have the confidence to have that moment, and I think they're a little bit -- a few steps ahead of us in their confidence that way, so we have to do it a different way. I think we've got to control. We have to make sure we value the basketball and take care of the basketball. Because they're very aggressive at certain points in the game to try to create turnovers, and that gives them run-outs on the other end, and it's an empty possession where we don't have a chance to get an offensive rebound, right?

And obviously, on the rebounding end, we have to control them to only get -- they've got some pretty good rebounders on their team too. And we've got to make sure we do a good job of controlling the defensive boards, and we're going to have to fight like crazy for extra possessions on the offensive glass as well. That's where I think the battle will be won, either team. Both teams will say that's a pivotal point, and which team can have the conquering mentality of that will probably come out on top.

Q. We talked about in Maryland you've drawn a lot of Connecticut teams over the years. What makes this team a little bit different than maybe some of those teams you've seen in the past? And the second thing is just Oregon State is here. A lot of Pac-12 teams doing well. Can you talk about the camaraderie maybe you have amongst those coaches? You've been very vocal on Twitter supporting Pac-12 schools.
CORI CLOSE: Absolutely. I don't know -- Connecticut has only lost two games all year. Let's be realistic. I just got done saying that culture wins a lot of the time for my team and my program, and their culture is extremely strong, and their identity is extremely strong. We will have to play our best basketball of the year to have a chance to win this game, but isn't that what you want, right? You want to be in situations and competitive environments that demand your best. And you work all year to put yourself in a position to grow into -- in our case, to really grow into a position that we can be in the range where our best effort gives us a chance to move on. And that's really what you want.

So I don't know if they're -- they're really good. You know, I'm just not going to say they have chinks in their armor or anything like that. I'm not buying that. They're a really good basketball team, and they're an excellent basketball program, and I think both are significant pieces. So it's going to be a great match-up for us. I do think it is good for us mentally that we're familiar. Every single one of our players on our team has had a match-up with them through the years.

So I think the mentality and confidence that we're not playing this fictitious TV UConn, like we have been in the trenches, and we know what the mistakes have been and we know what the victories have been in terms of the little moments. So I think that does help us, having that past experience, but it's going to demand our best.

In terms of the Pac-12, I just think being a part of the Pac-12 has made me a better coach. I think Oregon State has led -- what Scott Rueck has done is simply amazing. If you trace the history of that program, what he started with, how he built it, it's incredible. I have so much respect for Scott -- obviously, he's in this region -- but for all of the Pac-12 coaches. And I do think one of the things that's been really special about being a part of the Pac-12 conference is we truly do celebrate each other. It's not just a PR thing. It's like how can we help raise the whole level of the conference? What commitments do we need to make from a scheduling perspective? How do we need to commit to in recruiting wars that we're never going to put each other down? All these little things. And we have been committed to building the Pac-12 and not just building our own individual programs. I think that's what's playing out.

Q. Hi, Cori. I just was wondering what have you seen from Japreece Dean this season in terms of her growth and her leadership?
CORI CLOSE: She's been a scoring point guard in a point guard-sized body in the past. This year I've seen her grow into a leader and someone who thinks globally about the team and an influencer. That is really rewarding. She would like to play professionally and wants to learn to lead a team. She would go last summer and watch most of the NBA guys work out on UCLA's campus, and she would go and just study different workouts and was jumping in with them. They were really kind to her, worked out with different players. I won't go into names because I'll get myself in trouble there. But she really did the work, and she studied.

She'd come in and say, hey, coach, what do I need to do? Each week we'd have a leadership challenge behind the scenes, and most of her teammates didn't even know that was happening. And she was talking about learning the game mentally and building her IQ and learning how to facilitate. And I also give her credit, Shannon Perry runs a program called LIT, leaders in training in that program, and she's a part of that group. It's voluntary. You commit to it. But I really do think over time it's transpired into her being a great leader of our team. She's growing by leaps and bounds. She's growing in that.

It's really fun to coach someone with that much passion for the game. She'll say basketball is my life. I love it! I was a point guard back in the day when dinosaurs were still around, and it's so fun for me to see her passion even exceed mine. It's fun to watch her on the court to grow, and she's obviously an explosive playmaker for us. But I think I've seen her leadership grow and her defense grow most of all.

Thank you all for your time.

THE MODERATOR: I want to say welcome to our student-athletes, Kennedy Burke as well as Michaela Onyenwere. Again, as a reminder for folks in the media please speak into the microphone.

Q. I'll address this to Kennedy, but both of you can answer it. When you left L.A. last week, were you told to pack for a week and a half, and did you really believe you would still be here at this point?
KENNEDY BURKE: Yes, Pam Walker told us to pack for a long trip, and that's what we did. So far, we have been enjoying the trip that -- we came from Maryland and now we're in Albany, and we're both really excited.

MICHAELA ONYENWERE: Yeah, Coach Cori told us to pack for 10 days. I think she believed in us that we'd be here. Having coaches that believe in you really, really helps everything when it comes down to these games.

Q. Quick followup. What are you guys doing besides practice since you've come to Albany?
KENNEDY BURKE: We've been resting our bodies but also enjoying just the fun times together, like going to the movies or going to the mall and hanging out and stuff.

Q. Just wondering, for either of you, Coach Auriemma had said that he feels like their team may have gotten the toughest draw with you guys in the Sweet 16 because you're one of the hotter teams in the country. Do you feel like you are one of the hotter teams in the country, and why do you feel like you're playing your best basketball now?
MICHAELA ONYENWERE: I think that's such a compliment. I think that Geno is such a legendary coach. What he's done at UConn is just unmatched, and it's really, really great to hear that from such a great guy.

I think that, yeah, we've been working really hard, and we've been competing together for a really long time. We didn't start off the best, and I know it's super hard to go through that with a young and new team. We've come a long way. I'm just proud of our team and our growth, and I think that kind of is a testament to how hard we've worked over the course of this season.

KENNEDY BURKE: Just to piggy-back off of that, we didn't really start as we wanted to, and throughout our journey, it just showed that we could compete with any team in the country.

Q. Just to piggy-back off that for both of you, the start probably wasn't what you expected or hoped. Was there a moment you can remember, wow, things changed, a practice, a meeting, or something that got you guys going with the run you've been on for the last two months or so?
MICHAELA ONYENWERE: I think that the coaches never -- their faith in us never wavered, and I think that's something that's really important for a team who's really, really new and really just kind of finding their identity. But I think I would say probably when we -- the Arizona trip when we won at both, I think both those wins were very staple wins, and I think that instilled confidence in us, okay, we can really do this. Those are great programs, and one of them is actually here -- or in the Sweet 16. So it just kind of shows how much we've grown from that.

THE MODERATOR: Kennedy, anything to add?

KENNEDY BURKE: I forgot what I was going to say, but I think with every game that went by, we've gotten like one percent better each game. Coach mentions that a lot that every day we get one percent better, and it showed.

Q. Kennedy, can you talk about just the senior urgency that we're seeing from you. I mean, the Tennessee game, you really just took over at the end of that game and made two really spectacular defensive plays. Can you talk about how that feeling has been in being a leader for this team this season.
KENNEDY BURKE: Coach talked about how that, if I'm not really doing as well on the offensive end, that I should just contribute more to the defensive end. My goal for this team is to be a lock-up defender, and I feel like I've done that. I think my teammates have given me the confidence to be that for them.

Q. Michaela, can you talk about the difficulty of facing Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, among a lot of good UConn players, obviously, and maybe what challenges the team will have in terms of offensive rebounding.
MICHAELA ONYENWERE: Napheesa and Katie are great players. We've watched a lot of film on them, not specifically them, just the whole team. They're great players. It's going to be a little harder to score on them because they are bigger than me, but I think I've found ways to score over people who are bigger than me because I am undersized.

As far as the challenges, they're just a high-tempo, high-scoring team, and I think that's something we're going to have to focus on within the next 24 hours is just how to contain everybody because they are scoring at all different type of ways.

And to add on to that, I would just say, if we just continue with our offensive rebounding being a strength, that will get us a long way, especially like with the game coming up tomorrow.

Q. K.B., I remember talking to you last year before the UConn game, and you mentioned how the previous year before that, so your sophomore year, you were kind of sick going into that game and last year not really having the best performance offensively. Can you talk about kind of redemption this year and if that's on your mind, and just facing them for the third time in your career.
KENNEDY BURKE: I don't know if it's redemption, but I just feel like I just want to be the best version of myself for my team and just leaving it out on the floor for them because I'm not really sure if it's going to be our last game. So just being there for my teammates and just doing the best that I can will help.

Q. Is this a game -- when you can face a team like UConn in the Sweet 16, I've got to imagine it doesn't take much to get up for. Is this a game you guys get excited for as opposed to kind of being intimidated?
MICHAELA ONYENWERE: I don't know. No, I think that I feel the same for every single game. I think that we come out here, and we try to compete and we do our best to win. I think the coaches have prepared us very, very well for this game as they do any other game. I think that is just another game. It's a lot at stake. We want to go to the Elite 8, and I think that's what our goal is. It's like any other game. We have to compete. We have to work hard, and we have to play together.

KENNEDY BURKE: I think it's just mostly excitement for us. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So we're just really excited.

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