Prattle of sexes: How trash-talking men helped UCLA women reach the Sweet 16

If things start to go sideways against Louisiana State and flamboyant star Angel Reese, UCLA can always go back to the mantra that has carried it through difficult moments.

They don’t have a Jonny. They don’t have an O2. We’ve got this.

Jonny is Jonny Garnett, a 6-foot-4 super freak of an athlete who can touch the top of the rectangle on the backboard above the rim.

“O2” is Oscar Dela Cruz, a speck of a point guard who irritates with quickness and shooting.

They are part of a male scout team that routinely befuddles the Bruins women’s basketball players in practices and scrimmages, beating them with stronger bodies, faster moves, higher hops.

“If we’re just going to go athleticism on athleticism,” UCLA guard Camryn Brown said, “they’d beat us every time.”

Chance Huth, the director of creative video who has helped run the scout team in recent years, estimates that scrimmages have been split about 50-50. The women don’t mind losing to the men so long as it helps them win the games that count.

Moments after UCLA polished off Creighton in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Garnett pondered how he could mimic Reese in practice ahead of the Bruins’ showdown against the defending national champions

Saturday in an Albany 2 Regional semifinal at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y.

“Just rebounding, that’s probably like the No. 1 thing,” Garnett said from the seat inside Pauley Pavilion where he had cheered on the women a few rows behind their bench. “And showing attitude as well.”

Given his chivalrous nature, Garnett confined his combativeness during a midweek practice to an emphatic arm swing after beating Bruins center Lauren Betts with a move ending in a layup.

Swagger might be the only part of his game that’s lacking.

“He needs to work on his trash talk,” Betts said with a laugh, “because it’s way too forced.”

Getting feisty is rarely a problem for these guys. In a recent season, one scout team player on a shotmaking spree flapped his arms to stir a crowd that didn’t exist, exciting only coach Cori Close.

“I love it, Gabe, I love it!” Close yelled to Gabriel Hawkins. “Make them stop you!”

Male scout teams have been part of the fabric of women’s college basketball for decades, even before Close faced one as a point guard at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1990s. Every Pac-12 women’s team deploys men in practice to some extent, Close said. Some get more out of it than others considering UCLA’s scout team has gone 4-0 against USC since commencing annual scrimmages against its crosstown counterparts.

The ideal scout team player is better than anyone the Bruins will face but won’t rub it in theirs.

“It’s not about you showing how many times you can block a shot into the third row, you know?” Close said. “It’s about helping the players get better, so you have to have the right perspective.”

Dunking is allowed so long as it’s not reckless. The last thing Close wants is someone landing on one of her players, leading to an injury. The men are there to make it harder than it’s going to be in a game for the Bruins while displaying the tendencies of the other team. A natural righty, Garnett learned to shoot left-handed so that he could imitate an Oregon player.

Dela Cruz researched which Cal Baptist guard he would emulate ahead of the NCAA tournament before several UCLA players bothered to glance at the Lancers’ roster. His role required restraint, something that didn’t come easily for a go-to scorer.

“I’m like a short guard who likes to shoot,” Dela Cruz said, “but if the other guard is short but can’t shoot, I can’t shoot at all.”

How short is the player who goes by “O2” because he shares his father’s name? There remains some debate. Dela Cruz claims to be taller than 5-foot-4 guard Londynn Jones, who disputed this idea while standing alongside her practice partner.

Asked for his height, Dela Cruz replied, “I’d say 5-5.”

Is that being generous or accurate for someone who listed himself at 5-foot-4 in a YouTube video purportedly showing himself dunking?

“We’ll say accurate,” Dela Cruz said with a smile, later confessing it was actually Garnett dunking in the video.

There’s no questioning these guys’ skills. Garnett played varsity for four years at Campbell Hall High and was a walk-on outside linebacker for UCLA’s football team as a freshman in 2019 before giving up the sport. A women’s basketball team manager recruited him after watching him play on an outdoor campus court. Others saw fliers or were drawn by word of mouth.

The core of about 12 scout teamers all played high school basketball, giving them a basic understanding of terminology and practice plays so that Close can teach at her normal pace.

Last year, Garnett was selected the country’s best club player after being one of a handful of scout teamers who led UCLA to the national title. He sometimes wonders if he could play for a Division I team if he had committed himself to basketball instead of football out of high school.

Constantly wowed in practice, his female counterparts harbor no such doubts.

“He has the most Really? type moments,” Brown said. “He does some things where we’re like, Jonny, what? Like, how? Like, how can you double jump midair and still block the shot?”

Dela Cruz calls himself “D-1½” in a nod to putting in the same amount of work as a Division I college player. He not only attends practices but also accompanies players to early-morning and late-night shooting sessions, eagerly fetching rebounds.

After one practice this week, Garnett lingered just to hold his arm up. It was part of a drill designed to contest jumpers from Gabriela Jaquez, Angela Dugalic and Jones.

Though it can be thankless work, in no way is this a one-sided arrangement. These guys are universally considered part of the team, just one of the girls, if you will. Perks include priority class registration that allows them to attend practices, premium seats at games, recognition at team banquets and free shoes. Lots of shoes.

Garnett pointed to the blue-and-gold Russell Westbrook sneakers he was given that are the same model worn by players.

“They get a lot of shoes we don’t get,” Garnett said, “but just to get these was an amazing privilege.”

Going against males is nothing new for at least a handful of Bruins. Jaquez grew up battling brothers Jaime and Marcos while point guard Kiki Rice played on all-boys teams. Both said it prepared them to be physical and finish at the rim while contributing to a tough, aggressive style that continues to be enhanced by the scout team.

“We’re never going to play anyone that jumps as high as Jonny, that’s as quick as O2,” Gabriela Jaquez said, “so just playing against them every day, we’re really earning confidence that if we can stop them, we can stop anyone.”

Betts said practices make the games seem easy by comparison. One of the biggest mistakes the women can make is provoking their male counterparts.

“When they take it light on us, I’m like, ‘Are you guys going to guard me?’ ” guard Charisma Osborne said. “They usually take the challenge and I’m like, ‘Hold up, guys, slow down, I was just kidding.’ ”

The scout teamers don’t travel for practices, meaning no one can pretend to be Iowa’s Caitlin Clark should both the second-seeded Bruins and top-seeded Hawkeyes advance to the regional final on Monday. Betts bet that role would have gone to Dela Cruz despite his stature.

“Listen,” Betts said, “O2 can get a shot up, it doesn’t matter how tiny he is.”

There’s also no stopping the scout teamers when it comes to offering support. Even though NCAA rules forbid UCLA from paying their travel costs, a group of the guys piled into a car and drove to Las Vegas last year when the Bruins made the Pac-12 tournament championship. All lament that the guys can’t go with the girls more regularly.

“That’s something that we’d definitely love,” Betts said, “is if they could all just come with us. I wish I could just take them in my suitcase.”

Should UCLA advance to its first Final Four — not counting two appearances while competing in the Assn. for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women — the Bruins will likely see some familiar stubbled faces, even if they have to pay their own way.

“Final Four,” Dela Cruz said, “definitely we’re there.”

Their presence will be felt this weekend as well, especially if LSU goes on a run that sparks the usual rallying cry.

They don’t have a Jonny. They don’t have an O2. We’ve got this.

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