UCLA targets NCAA tournament with top-ranked freshman class

UCLA’s last top-ranked recruiting class ushered in an unprecedented era of success. For now, this next one will settle for just getting back to the NCAA tournament.

After missing the tournament for the first time since 2015, UCLA is in position to rebound immediately with the top freshman class in the country. Headlined by the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, Kiki Rice, and Camarillo star Gabriela Jaquez, the rookie class is UCLA’s first No. 1 group since the 2014 group led by Jordin Canada and Monique Billings that went to three consecutive NCAA regional semifinals and 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 stay focused on our goals as a team and what we want to get done — which is win — I think we’ll do it.”

UCLA’s first full practice of the year on Monday allowed coach Cori Close to see just how good her freshmen can become. German forward Lina Sontag suddenly popped with her aggressiveness. Forward Christeen Iwuala’s toughness shined through. Rice flashed her elite floor vision.

Rice could be a game-changing addition to the program, trying to advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019. The 5-foot-11 point guard was named the Gatorade national player of the year after averaging 15.8 points, 7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.7 steals during an undefeated senior year at Washington D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School. She is a three-time Team USA gold medalist, most recently starring during the Under-18 team’s championship run at the FIBA America’s Cup this summer alongside fellow UCLA freshman Londynn Jones. In addition to winning the tournament’s most valuable player award, she shared MVP honors with Jaquez at the McDonald’s All-American Game.

Kiki Rice, right, tries 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 everyone is “faster, bigger and more athletic” and “coaches demand a lot more from you.”

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

The freshmen have strong mentors in seniors Camryn Brown and Charisma Osborne and graduate transfer 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 sidelined her last season.

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

“The fact that she’s dedicated, come in early, stay late, do whatever it takes to win and to show that she’s working to improve and do it not only with herself, but bring other teammates with her, I think that’s so powerful,” Conti said. “Especially to have that skill as a freshman is amazing.”

Welcome back

Sophomore forward Emily Bessior and senior Brynn Masikewich have been cleared for full participation in practice after battling 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 with a knee brace after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament.

Sidelined

Sophomore forward Izzy Anstey is recovering from offseason hip surgery and likely won’t be available until Pac-12 play, 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 suffering an injury while playing with the Serbian national team in advance of the FIBA World Cup.