UCLA targets NCAA tournament with top-ranked freshman class

UCLA’s last senior recruiting class ushered in an unprecedented era of success. For now, this next one will be content to simply return to the NCAA tournament.

After missing the tournament for the first time since 2015, UCLA is poised to bounce back immediately with the best freshman class in the country. The rookie class, led by Kiki Rice, the nation’s second-largest recruit, and Camarillo star Gabriela Jaquez, is UCLA’s first No. 1 group since the 2014 group led by Jordin Canada and Monique Billings and three straight NCAA Regional Semifinals reached the school’s second Elite Eight.

“The rankings don’t really mean anything when you get here, but it’s really exciting,” Jaquez said. “As long as we as a team stay focused on our goals and what we want to achieve – which is to win – I think we’ll get there.”

At UCLA’s first full practice of the year on Monday, coach Cori Close saw just how good her freshmen could be. German striker Lina Sontag suddenly banged with her aggressiveness. Striker Christeen Iwuala’s tenacity showed. Rice flashed her elite ground vision.

Rice could be a game-changing addition to the program, attempting to make it through the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019. The 5’7″ point guard was named Gatorade National Player of the Year after averaging 15.8 points, 7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.7 steals in an undefeated senior year at Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. She is a three-time Team USA gold medalist, most recently playing alongside fellow UCLA freshman Londynn Jones in the under-18 championship run at the FIBA ​​America’s Cup this summer. Not only did she win the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, she also shared MVP honors with Jaquez at the McDonald’s All-American Game.

Kiki Rice (right) attempts to drive past Gabriela Jaquez during the McDonald's All-American Girls basketball game.

Kiki Rice (right) attempts to drive past Gabriela Jaquez during the McDonald’s All-American Girls basketball game in March. The two are now teammates at UCLA.

(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

But such a decorated high school resume isn’t enough to ensure a seamless transition to college, where Rice recognized that everyone is “faster, taller, and more athletic” and “coaches ask a lot more of you.”

“In high school and AAU, wherever we’re from, we’re all used to being the player who never really does anything wrong, doesn’t make mistakes,” Rice said. “I think here, when you step onto the college floor, there’s still an adjustment period, so sometimes I’m not used to getting things wrong or not recognizing them right away.”

The freshmen have strong mentors in seniors Camryn Brown and Charisma Osborne and graduate Gina Conti, a point guard who ranks second on Wake Forest’s all-time assists list and returned for a sixth year after a foot injury put her in had to take a break last season.

Conti praised the intensity and joy of the new group. She noted how the freshmen teach her things in practice and that they have already earned her respect, especially Rice.

“The fact that she’s committed, coming early, staying late, doing whatever it takes to win and showing that she’s working to improve and not just doing it with herself but bringing other teammates with her is what I find I so strong.” said Conti. “To have that ability, especially as a newbie, is amazing.”

Welcome back

Sophomore forward Emily Bessior and senior Brynn Masikewich have been cleared for full participation in training after suffering knee injuries last season. Bessior, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team after averaging 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds, returned to the court wearing a knee brace after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament.

excluded

Sophomore forward Izzy Anstey is recovering from off-season hip surgery and likely won’t be available until Pac-12 plays, Close said. The 6-foot-4 forward led the team with 20 blocks last year while averaging 2.8 points and 4 rebounds in 27 appearances.

Fellow forward Angela Dugalić is awaiting knee surgery after sustaining an injury while playing with the Serbia national team ahead of the FIBA ​​World Cup.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-09-27/ucla-bruins-womens-basketball-top-ranked-freshman-class UCLA targets NCAA tournament with top-ranked freshman class

Emma Bowman

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