Fully-stocked, versatile UCLA shows promise in 64-43 rout of UC Riverside

Charisma drives the ball past the defense and into the paint. Caren Nicdao, UCLA Athletics photo.

Of course, Cori Close had her eyes on the adjustments that UCLA will have to make after their second game of the season, against UC Riverside Thursday.

The Bruins got off to a slow start, scoring just 10 points in the first quarter, before picking up the pace in the next two frames to go on to a 64-43 rout. And though it was a solid win, the coach who guided her team to a WNIT title, four Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite 8 berth since 2015 needs to see more.

“In the first half we didn’t respond very well to adversity,” Close said of the Highlanders’ defense. “We didn’t make the winning mental responses we needed to make to (counter) what was happening.”

But the fact that UCLA is playing with a full roster for the first time since 2019-2020, that they are healthy, and that they boast the No. 1 recruiting class in the U.S. has created a lot of excitement for the team, and points to a path towards recapturing their elite, top 25 status.

“Long term, our size and ability to affect plays on both sides of the floor because of that size is going to be a really good thing for us,” Close said.

Sophomore forward Emily Bessoir, who has returned after missing last season with an ACL tear, had her second strong outing, scoring 16 points, which included going 2-5 from three. Senior guard Charisma Osborne, who has shouldered the team workload since her sophomore year, when the Bruin roster was down to eight, scored 12 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds.

All but one of the 11 who saw floor time scored, including freshman Gabriela Jaquez, who put up 9 points in her first career start. Two other members of the celebrated class – point guard Kiki Rice and forward Christeen Iwuala – had 5 points and 5 assists and 6 points and 3 rebounds, respectively.

Osborne, who sustained a knee injury late last season, joked that she hadn’t had as many teammates since she was a freshman herself. Close said having multiple weapons in the UCLA arsenal is good for everyone.

“Over the course of the year…..Charisma doesn’t feel like she has to get 18 every game,” Close said.

But Osborne has played more minutes than any Bruin, including the only other senior, Camryn Brown, and as she goes, so does the team. Fortunately for all, the way Osborne rolls is always very fast – and that included picking up the pace against Riverside.

“Our (winning effort) started with Charisma, who steadied us in the third quarter, and set the tone on both ends of the floor,” Close said. “Having Emily back is a huge lift, and I’m pleased with how her work is paying off, and how she’s shooting the ball.”

Osborne said the team is loaded with talent.

“All of us have taken it to heart to make sure our chemistry is good,” she said. “People not in leadership positions are following along and listening. We have a lot of great players that can make plays.”

Bessoir called the freshmen “coachable sponges.”

“We have a really good squad that has a good chemistry on and off the court,” she said. “We’re just trying to figure out the puzzle pieces.”

For the newcomers, much of their adjustment will also be in accumulating game experience, as their decision-making is still a work in progress. For returners that also include Gina Conti, who sat out 2021-2022 with injury, and Dominique Onu, who played limited minutes last year for the same reason, they are adjusting to the new-look roster, and roles that are now different.

As with Osborne’s rebounds and Bessoir’s shooting ability against the Highlanders, so has the rest of the young UCLA squad demonstrated a lot of versatility. Close said she always tries to recruit multi-skilled athletes, as the game has changed.

“The days of playing high to low post and powering it in are over,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to spread the court, move the ball and play all positions. Our system has to facilitate growth towards that end.”

The Bruins next host Troy on Sunday at 2 p.m.