Winning UCLA, USC taking strength and momentum into Pac-12 play

Destiny Littleton and Camryn Brown battle for ball possession. USC Athletics photo.

College basketball in Los Angeles has been having quite a renaissance to begin the 2022-2023 season.

Both UCLA and USC are rebounding after tough years by leaps and bounds, and begin Pac-12 play Friday as contenders, who are ready to shake things up. Those on each team’s re-tooled rosters have developed great chemistry both on and off the court, which has translated to game-by-game growth.

And though coaches and players of both teams know they will have to work hard for wins in a tough conference, they remain optimistic.

“Every (other team in the Pac-12) is really good at home, so we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Trojan coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “But I do like the progression that’s got us to where we are right now. It’s really fun to see.”

The Bruins stepped into 2021-2022 with four grad transfers, a handful of others who had sat out the previous COVID-impacted season, or who were injured, and they had a lot of optimism. But the talented group struggled to find on-court cohesion, and went 1-2 in their Thanksgiving holiday tournament. Another loss to UConn two weeks later bounced them out of the AP top 25 for the first time since the 2015-2016 season.

UCLA’s next five games were canceled due to health and safety protocols in both opponent programs and their own, leaving them to finish nonconference play 5-3. Their first Pac-12 game wasn’t until Jan. 9, and they finished 7th in conference, with an overall 18-13 record. They weren’t selected for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years, and reached the semifinals of the WNIT.

On the other side of town, Gottlieb had inherited a skilled squad when she took over as head coach. They ran out to a 7-3 nonconference start, and showed great promise. But in the Pac-12, USC stumbled, and won just five games the rest of the way, to finish in 10th place with a 12-16 record.

After the season the Bruins graduated seven players, while USC saw eight enter the transfer portal. Replacements came in the form of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for UCLA, and a diverse group of skilled veteran transfers for the Trojans.

To say that both teams found their court chemistry early and have exceeded expectations is an understatement – especially for the Bruins, who re-entered the top 25 after just two weeks of play, and have since ascended to the top 10. Their record is 12-1, with their lone loss to No. 1 South Carolina, who didn’t make a surge to win the game until late in the fourth quarter.

“I’m pleased with our growth,” coach Cori Close said. “If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that with nine new players we’d be 12-1, beating four teams in the top 50, I’d say ‘I’ll take that’ with this young group……I’m excited to keep coaching this young team.”

USC was undefeated until facing their crosstown rivals Dec. 15, for their first Pac-12 game. Though UCLA managed to pull out a 59-56 win, the Trojans made a statement. They lost once more, to Texas, a few days later, and enter conference at 10-2.

Gottlieb, who missed some time coaching just before the season after giving birth to her daughter, is enjoying putting the pieces together.

“To try and blend a lot of different players who come from programs with different styles, that’s a fun challenge,” Gottlieb said. “The fact that our only other loss came on the heels of the UCLA game made us feel like hey, we’ve got a little soul-searching to do. I think the challenge is good for us.”

Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne, shown here on Pac-12 media day, have become a formidable scoring tandem this season. UCLA Athletics photo.

Leading the way for the Bruins is senior guard Charisma Osborne, who is averaging 18.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, as she is the team’s heart, and vocal leader. No. 2 recruit Kiki Rice, who has started all 13 games, has lived up to her billing, averaging 12.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3 assists, and almost one block per outing.

Redshirt sophomore forward Emily Bessoir, who sat out last year with an injury, has stepped back into the starting lineup to average 8.9 points and 5.1 rebounds. Graduate transfer guard Gina Conti, who was also out last year with injury, has started 11 games, and averages 6.8 points and 3.6 rebounds, as she adds an experienced presence in the lineup. Freshman forward Gabriela Jaquez has come on strong of late, and averages 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Freshmen Londynn Jones, Christeen Iwuala and Lina Sontag have all been impressively reliable off the bench, showing flashes of brilliance. Senior Camryn Brown – the only one who has been in Westwood for four years besides Osborne – has started all games due to her on-court poise, and her ability to guide the younger players.

USC’s transfers came from five different conferences and varying coaching philosophies, but were able to gel quickly because of their maturity and experience. Forward Kadi Sissoko, from the Minnesota Gophers, has averaged a solid 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while running mate Rayah Marshall, a sophomore forward returner, has put up 13 points and 10.3 boards. Destiny Littleton, from defending champion South Carolina, scores 12.3 points, grabs 4 rebounds and dishes 4.3 assists per outing.

Other starters include TCU transfer Okoko Adika (6.8 points, 5.3 rebounds) and Irvine transfer Kayla Williams (5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists). Taylor Bigby, a freshman transfer from Oregon, and senior returner Alyson Miura have been reliable scorers off the bench, as have returner Bella Perkins and Arizona transfer forward Koi Love.

Though they have grown visibly more confident with each game, UCLA still has in-game lapses. Close said they are working on it.

“It’s our strength to get the ball and go fast and make people guard us one-on-one, but the reality is when we’re shooting higher percentages, that’s when we’re playing (together),” she said. “We’ve had a lot of games now to be able to earn trust. Mental focus is everything when you’re in these tight games – not just with skill and talent, but with heart and mind.”

Kadi Sissoko takes a shot. USC Athletics photo.

The Trojans are learning mental toughness in the form of perseverance, rather than giving up when things don’t go their way.

“We are sharing the ball more, and after one thing breaks down, we continue to play through it,” sophomore center Clarice Akunwafo said.

Players from both teams say their closeness off the court contributes to their selflessness between the lines. And they are already looking forward to what is sure to be a fiery part II of their season series, on Jan. 8.

But for now – both teams say they take games one at a time – No. 17 Oregon and gritty Oregon State are on tap, as the California schools prepare for Friday and Sunday’s away matchups.

“We will learn a lot when we make our trip to Oregon,” Close said last week. “We will learn from our habits……you’ve got to do it with discipline, and not fouling.”

Gottlieb said she and Close are hopeful that the top-level play of their teams will encourage more fans to come to games.

“Cori and I are both committed to women’s basketball in LA,” Gottlieb said. “We want people to think that this is the place to be, and to come again.”

No. 10 UCLA visits the Ducks Friday, while USC faces the Beavers.