UCLA went unranked in the preseason for the first time in four years, but Cori Close wasn’t concerned. The coach looked at her team’s schedule, which included a three-game tournament in the Bahamas and a street contest against the defending champion, and knew UCLA’s time to prove itself would come soon enough.
“Either we’re going to step up and earn that or we’re not,” Close said, “and look at where we’re at.”
The No. 10 Bruins step into their Pac-12 opener and are back where they hoped they would be, breaking into the top 10 with a 9-1 record. UCLA starts its conference list against USC Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center.
UCLA made its mark with victories over South Dakota State, Tennessee and Marquette – all teams ranked this season – in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which featured dynamic guard duo Charisma Osborne and Kiki Rice leading the team. fought back into the national spotlight to three wins in three days. Then UCLA solidified their standing as a legitimate contender by challenging No. 1 South Carolina in a contest loss in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have not lost since December 3, 2020.
With Rice and fellow freshmen Gabriela Jaquez, Lina Sontag and Londynn Jones playing key minutes, the Bruins were tied with South Carolina in the fourth quarter. At halftime, the Bruins, who were missing 6-foot-2 forward Christeen Iwuala through an undisclosed injury, were even on the boards with South Carolina, which Close said was the country’s best rebound program in the past decade. UCLA stayed within two possessions until 1:11 on the clock before South Carolina pulled away with a 73-64 win.
“We showed a lot… and we were proud of that, but it’s about that one possession where we could have gotten another rebound or that one possession where we should have guarded the high post better,” said forward Emily Bessoir, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. “It’s just the little details that count so much in the end.”
While the Bruins proved themselves early during a difficult non-conference table, Thursday’s rivalry game will be the first major test for USC. In their best start since the 2018-19 season, the Trojans (9-0) faced only one team — No. 89 San Francisco — ranked in the top 100 on this week’s NET rankings. The Trojans averaged a Pac-12-worst 16.7 turnover in wins, but still blew out their overwhelmed opponents by an average of 26.1 points.
With the next games against UCLA and Texas coming up, the Trojans know their mistakes will cost more as the competition increases.
“Being able to take care of the ball is crucial,” said guard Destiny Littleton. “In the first nine games we were able to do things that we can’t do against UCLA and Texas.”
Littleton, a former South Carolina guard, is one of seven transfers in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s sophomore year with the Trojans. While the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant felt encouraged by the foundation she laid during her freshman year, the significant roster change left the coach feeling like he’s back to square one.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like we really got rolling in March of last year,” Gottlieb said.
In reshaping the roster, Gottlieb looked for culture-defining players whose impact in the dressing room would be as big as their game on the pitch. Littleton, who is second on the team with 13.4 points and tied at the top with four assists per game, brings valuable national championship experience from her time with the Gamecocks.
Forward Kadi Sissoko was a two-year starter in Minnesota but didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to help shape USC’s future. The member of the French youth national team leads the Trojans with 16.3 points in the ranking and is sixth in the Pac-12 with 59.8% in the shot rate.
“I want to change the culture [at USC]’ Sissoko said. “It starts with winning games to show people we’re out here. We try to win games and get people to come to our games.”
The Trojans have lost six straight games to their crosstown rivals. The Bruins, fueled by their top-notch freshman class living up to the bill, are poised to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the cut last year for the first time since 2015.
“This team isn’t afraid of big moments,” Close said. “I think they have confidence beyond their years of experience and that’s a great thing and they deserve that because they’ve worked really hard.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-12-12/usc-ucla-womens-basketball-pac-12 No. 10 UCLA opens Pac-12 play against untested USC