Durable Osborne working toward strong, “normal” finish

Charisma Osborne. UCLA Athletics photo.

Senior guard Charisma Osborne walks past photos of UCLA greats each time she is in Pauley Pavilion. They remind her of the program standard, which in recent years has included four straight trips to the Sweet 16, one Elite 8 appearance, a WNIT championship, and a slew of individual program records set.

At an athletic juggernaut like UCLA, legacy is usually a fairly straightforward thing. But Osborne’s imprint on Westwood, like the person that she is, is far more complicated than statistics and all-time marks.

The collegiate path of the two-time state high school basketball champion and top-10 recruit has been a complex weave of disruption, pivoting on-court duties, injury, and heaping lessons in life. And whether she chooses to declare for the WNBA draft this spring or stay another year, she will leave a legacy on the Bruin program like no other before her.

“Banners hang in gyms and rings collect dust, but who you become and who you impact are with you forever,” coach Cori Close said. “To watch Charisma impact the people around her, and then to see her becoming proud of who she’s becoming through all of her work…….I’m surprised, but only because I didn’t know what this was going to look like for her. And I’m thrilled for her.”

This season Osborne is back playing 33 minutes per game, while putting up 15.4 points and grabbing 5.8 rebounds – all team-highs. She has been remarkably consistent as a starter over four years, despite the circumstances she’s endured.

Last year she tore her meniscus in a game five weeks before the end of the regular season. She played sparingly the rest of the way in games only, gritting her teeth through the pain, hoping to lead UCLA to the NCAA Tournament after an injury-riddled season for the team, which saw them fall out of the top 25 poll for the first time in seven years.

But after a second-round defeat in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Bruins missed the Big Dance for the first time since 2015. They made it to the semifinal round of the WNIT, after which came knee surgery for Osborne, who hit the reset button.

The team’s top recruiting class arrived, which included No. 2 Kiki Rice, and four other talented true freshmen. The entire group bonded during a pre-Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas, and within a week, after some critical wins, UCLA was back in the top 25 again.

Osborne and the team continued to roll until the last day of December, when she collided with an opponent during a game at Oregon and sprained her shoulder. She sat out the following game and returned to the court the following weekend, but she wasn’t quite 100 percent. It took a mental toll on her.

“I was having a rough time those two or three weeks – I was just really going through it,” Osborne said. “But the people around me really supported me, helped me and were there for me. They just helped me get through it.”

If Osborne’s usual upbeat personality was subdued after this latest setback, it is understandable, as her collegiate career has been unorthodox, unpredictable, and at times, harsh.

She came to the program with high hopes, which included playing in the NCAA Tournament. And the Bruins, as they had the previous four seasons, were rolling in 2019-2020. They knocked off all but one other Pac-12 team, including Stanford, as well as a few other ranked opponents as they worked toward a 26-5 record. They lost in the semifinal round of the Pac-12 tournament to the Cardinal, and awaited their Selection Monday fate.

Four days before that, however, the NCAA canceled the NCAA Tournament, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. Osborne said it was crushing.

“You’re in high school and you’re looking forward to playing in March Madness, and you’re growing up watching and thinking, ‘that’s going to be me,'” Osborne said. “It was really hard. You’re thinking what is happening….not just in basketball.”

“We had seniors, and we felt very solid as a team during that time. We had wanted to do really well in the Tournament. It was really hard, though I did enjoy my first year – it’s one of my favorite seasons here.”

Quarantined in their hometowns that summer, team members watched in horror as protests and riots erupted over the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police there. By the fall, UCLA had launched a social justice and advocacy group called More Than a D.R.E.A.M., which Osborne said taught her and her teammates more than they could have imagined.

The unbelievable ride that was the 2020-2021 season saw the Bruins with more success on fewer resources than the vast majority of other teams, and Osborne played a key factor in that. Due to season opt-outs and a never-ending rotation of player injuries, the team never had more than eight ready to play at any time during the year. They played one game with six, and only three players started all 23 games: seniors Michaela Onyenwere and Lauryn Miller, and Osborne, who had to shift from her natural shooting guard position to the one-spot.

The team pulled off some improbable wins in a start-and-stop season, finishing 17-6 and never falling out of the rankings. Their season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament bubble location in San Antonio, with a painful loss to the Texas Longhorns.

Osborne downplayed her role, crediting the leadership of older players during the season. She also took a view of gratitude.

“I was like, ‘can anybody else play point?’ But I was the only one,” she said. “It was a challenge trying to figure out how I could still be productive, and figure things out. But my teammates were so helpful, and even though we didn’t have that many players, it was so much fun. We all bought into it.”

Starters Emily Bessoir, Charisma Osborne, Gina Conti, Kiki Rice and Camryn Brown on court during the South Carolina matchup last November. Nell Redmond/AP photo.

Close, associate head coach Shannon LeBeauf and Osborne herself agree that she had great role models to look up to, as an underclassman. But the Southern California native took the mantle and became a leader in her own right these last two years. Now she is the one talking to her teammates in huddles, calling them out if necessary and challenging them to do better.

“She has grown so much….I think the biggest growth has been in her leadership – and who knew you had to lead through COVID, and difficulties that no one was prepared to deal with?” LeBeauf said. “Now when the score is tight, she’s settling the team. She’s saying, let’s reset.”

Close said Osborne’s growth comes from her openness to challenges and her desire to evolve and improve.

“Her willingness to go through the hard and to not shy away – to not go into herself – but to lean into the hard, I think that’s what leads her to those places,” Close said.

LeBeauf and assistant coach Tasha Brown have been there for Osborne, as has Onyenwere, who is playing in the WNBA, Miller, who is the diversity and inclusion director at San Jose State, and Japreece Dean – a senior in Osborne’s first year who now plays overseas. All called their younger “sister” last month in support.

Miller said there has been a big shift in mindset for her friend in her junior and senior years to not only being an important piece to the team’s success, but being responsible for leading others.

“She realized people were looking to her in a different capacity, and I’ve been excited to see her lean into that, because I know it’s been hard for her,” Miller said. “She has wrestled with those moments where you want the freedom to just hoop again, and you don’t want to have to deal with all the extra. It’s been cool and encouraging to watch her lean into that and be willing to grow.”

“Now her game has a different depth to it.”

Leadership doesn’t necessarily come naturally to Osborne, who is, as Dean describes it, “super-sweet, innocent, and sensitive, too.”

“Figuring out her emotions has been big for her personal growth,” Dean said.

LeBeauf said being kind-spirited can make it hard to lead others, but one of Osborne’s other main traits helps her step into the role.

“She has to hold them accountable,” LeBeauf said. “She’s sweet, she’s kind but what I love about her is that she’s so competitive. That’s how she can put her kindness aside for a second, is because she loves to win.”

“But then she’s going to turn around and bake them some cookies or have them come over.”

Osborne’s toughness, is nothing new. As a sophomore at the Windward school, she had a tooth partially knocked out during a critical game, and continued playing to help get the win. Every time she played last season after her knee injury, the joint swelled up after the game. She said her toughness comes from her will to win.

“I’m just like, whatever it takes – if I have to go into the game on one leg and play, I guess I’ll have to do that,” Osborne said. “But I just really want to win all the time.”

“(Last year) was hard – it wasn’t easy. And I had the best doctors and trainers and support system, and they helped me out so much. But I just really wanted to win and do whatever I could to help my team.”

That spirit was never more evident than last November, after the Bruins came very close to upsetting No. 1 South Carolina before the defending national champions pulled away in the game’s final minutes. Osborne sat next to Close at the post-game presser, and when it came her turn to answer a question, she suddenly teared up.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying,” Osborne told the room.

Close put her arm around her shoulder and said, “it’s because you’re a competitor, and you want to win.”

Osborne also fills up the stat sheet nicely, contributing assists, rebounds and steals each game, though she did also ascend to No. 15 on the UCLA all-time scoring list a few weeks ago.

This season, in particular, she has learned to adjust her play according to the flow of the game.

“If my shots aren’t falling, how else can I help my team?” Osborne said. “Setting screens, getting rebounds, getting steals? I love playing defense. So if I’m not playing well offensively, then my defense needs to step up 10 times more. I think that’s super-important.”

Miller has been impressed with her maturity.

“It’s been cool to see her be able to assess and step back and realize that she needs to try something else,” Miller said. “That’s a hard thing to do. Some stars aren’t able to have that kind of humbling moment of hey, it’s not my shot right now.”

Osborne has been projected to be selected anywhere from fifth to ninth in this year’s WNBA draft, but she could also take advantage of the NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility and return for the 2023-2024 season.

“I have not made that decision, and I probably won’t make it until later on,” she said.

Charisma Osborne. UCLA Athletics photo.

Close is confident in her future.

“Her basketball IQ is so high that she has the ability to adjust to any system that she’s drafted into. That’s something that people undervalue,” Close said. “She knows how to affect the game in so many different ways, and she’s one of the country’s most-respected defenders in the entire country. She’ll know how to become a winner in any system.”

For now, Osborne is focused on finishing the NCAA regular season strong, and making a deep run in the Pac-12 Tournament next week. She also wants to do something she has never been able to do in her collegiate career.

“Winning an NCAA championship is what I came here to do, but we’ve never hosted, as we did in the years before I got here,” Osborne said. “The first year was shut down by COVID and the next year we played in the bubble. Then last year, we didn’t make the tournament.”

“I just want to go through a normal tournament, and see how that goes.”

UCLA will honor Osborne and two other seniors, Camryn Brown and Brynn Masikewich, before tipoff of tomorrow’s last home game, at noon PT.