Michaela Onyenwere: Former runner now chasing Pac-12 title

Michaela Onyenwere is gearing up for a big senior year. | Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michaela Onyenwere left behind a lot of potential as a track runner to pursue her basketball dreams. Now she’s running the UCLA Bruins’ women’s basketball team as the go-to scorer.

As she was growing up, Michaela Onyenwere’s father, Peter, saw her potential to become a track star in the Olympics, like he was for Nigeria.

But Onyenwere developed a love for the game of basketball in high school and her athletic abilities drew attention from college coaches all over the country.

Feature: Onyenwere sticks with basketball, gets recruited like crazy

UCLA Bruins head coach Cori Close was the lucky one who was able to recruit Onyenwere, a 6-foot forward from Aurora, Colorado. Since arriving in Los Angeles, Onyenwere has improved all aspects of her game, including her now-great midrange shot, and has put on quite a show.

As a Bruin freshman, Onyenwere went to the Elite Eight. The team was led by current WNBA players Jordin Canada, Monique Billings and Kennedy Burke, but Onyenwere was still able to chip in with 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game off the bench. She scored eight points in the team’s Sweet Sixteen win over the second-seeded Texas Longhorns and notched eight again in a loss to the top-seed Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Elite Eight.

Highlights: Onyenwere was one of the top freshmen in the Pac-12 in 2017-18

As a sophomore, Onyenwere started all 35 games for the Bruins and averaged 18.3 points. In the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament she scored 30 points to lead the sixth-seeded Bruins to an upset road win over the third-seeded Maryland Terrapins.

That remains the Bruins’ most recent win in the Big Dance seeing as they lost to the UConn Huskies in the Sweet Sixteen that year and then the tournament was canceled in 2020.

Highlights: Hard-fought win for UCLA over Maryland

Onyenwere upped her scoring average slightly as a junior and hauled in rebounds at the same rate she did as a sophomore (8.5 per game). She was a Third Team AP All-American last year and returns as a member of the preseason First Team. UCLA sits at No. 9 in the AP poll and expectations are high for both the team and Onyenwere.

In addition to Onyenwere, UCLA returns sophomore guard Charisma Osborne, who hopes to be the Robin to Onyenwere’s Batman. Osborne put up solid stats and had some clutch moments as a freshman. In the team’s 2020-21 opener on Friday she was good for 31 points and six assists to lead the Bruins to a 98-49 win over the Cal State Fullerton Titans. Onyenwere had 22 points and was 10-of-15 from the field.

Osborne is going to need to become the team’s best backcourt player with Japreece Dean now graduated. Dean was the No. 30 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft but did not make a roster.

Canada, Billings and Burke, however, were on WNBA teams this past summer and played in the Bradenton, Florida bubble. Canada was a key bench player on the championship-winning Seattle Strom, while Billings played an important role with the Atlanta Dream and Burke showed flashes of potential in her second season with the Indiana Fever. It won’t be long before Onyenwere becomes a contributor to UCLA’s WNBA legacy, too. Draft Site has her projected to be the No. 7 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.

Onyenwere wants to be a dentist after her playing days are over, but it looks like those days aren’t going to be ending anytime soon.

Her team’s path to a conference title in 2020-21 will be a difficult one with the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal, No. 7 Arizona Wildcats and No. 10 Oregon Ducks all in the Pac-12 with the Bruins. But Onyenwere and company are ready to build off what they accomplished last year, when they landed as the No. 5 overall seed in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket.

They are ready to keep fighting.

Interview: Where things left off (Onyenwere speaks after UCLA’s last win of 2019-20)