Unbeaten No. 2 UCLA, No. 6 USC ready to battle for LA bragging rights

Freshman JuJu Watkins is USC’s leading scorer, averaging 26.8 points per game. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

The “crosstown rivalry” between UCLA and USC has never been short of excitement, build up, intensity or crowds. But this year’s two showdowns – the first of which is tomorrow – will take the battle to another level, as a sold-out arena in Westwood will cheer on a top-10 matchup.

The No. 6 Trojans visit the No. 2 Bruins, as both teams have undefeated records on the line. The rematch, in Troy, will go down Jan. 14, in front of what promises to be another sold-out affair.

It is the kind of scenario that both UCLA coach Cori Close and USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb have been dreaming of for years in Los Angeles. But as their teams meet, they could not have come from more different places.

The 11-0 Bruins have a roster of veterans that, with the exception of two newcomers, have played together for years and not only have a lot of experience on the floor, but know each other well. They were ranked No. 4 in preseason polls, and it took them just two weeks to grab the second spot – the highest in program history. They have stayed there ever since.

That same week, the Trojans reached the sixth spot for the first time since 1994, after entering the year unranked. They have nine new players and five returners, coming off a season where they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Thanks to No. 1 recruit JuJu Watkins, game attendance has increased dramatically this year.

“It will be great basketball and great competition, and we will be growing the game in Southern California,” Close said. “What a great thing to be a part of.”

Gottlieb had similar feelings around the deeper meaning of the high-stakes matchup.

“Basketball in LA has never seen anything like this,” she said. “Both teams have earned it…..it’s going to be fun.”

Lauren Betts has provided a strong inside presence for UCLA. G Fiume/Getty Images.

The Bruins are lead by sophomore center Lauren Betts, a Stanford transfer, who is averaging 16.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. She’s got the top field goal percentage in the nation, and has filled a long-open spot in the paint that has allowed returning starters to shift into other roles, and share the scoring load more equally.

Fifth-year senior guard Charisma Osborne, both battle-tested and skilled, averages 14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists; while guard Kiki Rice (last year’s No. 1 recruit, in front of Betts at No. 2) scores 13.5 points, grabs 5.6 boards and dishes 6.54 assists per outing. Sophomores Gabriela Jaquez and Londynn Jones, who mostly started last season, are now each coming off the bench at times, and both average 13.5 points per game, with Jaquez adding 6.6 rebounds.

Sophomore forward Angela Dugalic, who sat out with an injury last year, has started all of the 9 games she has played, and is averaging 9.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Reserves Christeen Iwuala, Camryn Brown and Amanda Muse, in particular, have been reliable contributors for UCLA.

Their stability was developed on the road, where the Bruins earned all three of their biggest wins in beating No. 6 UConn for the first time in program history, No. 20 Florida State and No. 13 Ohio State. Close said that designing a challenging schedule yielded the dividends she had hoped it would.

“We knew it was going to be really important for us to be tough and together, and it forced us to go to new levels,” she said. “For some trips we were in final exams, and it was really difficult physically and mentally. But I do believe it earned us some confidence, and I’m grateful we have a team and a staff that will do whatever it takes to get better.”

The 10-0 Trojans burst through the gates on the season’s first day, toppling then-No. 7 Ohio State behind 32 points from Watkins, who has gone on to repeat the 30-point feat four more times, for a program record. She currently has the second-highest scoring average in Division I. In addition to her 6.9 rebounding average, and more importantly her maturity and poise, she is now in national player of the year discussions.

Junior Rayah Marshall is both an emotional and statistical leader for the Trojans. USC Athletics photo.

Returning junior forward Rayah Marshall averages 14.3 points and 10 rebounds, while graduate transfer McKenzie Forbes, who played for Gottlieb at her previous school, puts up 12.9 points, grabs 3.4 rebounds and dishes 3.6 assists per game. They lead a stellar cast that includes transfer guards Taylor Bigby and Kayla Padilla and transfer forward Kaitlyn Davis – all of whom average at least 7.4 points, while Davis adds 6.2 rebounds.

Reserves Dominique Darius, Kayla Williams, Clarice Akunwafo and Malia Samuels are solid off the bench, with Akunwafo and Samuels sometimes being called into a starting role.

The team beat Florida Gulf Coast, Seton Hall and Penn State, but their most significant test might have been last week, before the holiday break. As Watkins and Marshall sat out with illness, USC dug deep for the win against Long Beach State, with Forbes scoring a career-high 36 points to lead the way. Gottlieb said that although the circumstances were stressful at the time, they ultimately proved beneficial.

“We were dealing with circumstances of injury, illness and adversity, but we never wavered in our confidence,” she said. “Ultimately, others having to step up made them better.”

Not only are the two teams filled with stars, but they are lead by two coaches with stellar resumes.

Close took the helm at UCLA in 2011, and in her third year, landed the nation’s top recruiting class. Since 2016, the team has been to five Sweet 16’s, one Elite 8, one round of 32 and one WNIT semifinal. Close has seen four of her Bruins drafted into the WNBA, and she has retained 2 of her assistant coaches for her entire tenure.

Gottlieb was hired at Cal in 2011, where she guided the Bears to numerous NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 2013, before leaving to take an assistant coaching job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2019. She returned to the college ranks in 2021, when she took the job at USC.

Former Bruin great Ann Meyers Drysdale has high praise for both coaches.

“Cori is in her 13th year there, and that’s amazing,” Drysdale said. “She’s amazed me because she’s been through a lot there, including player injuries. She followed her path, and I’m really happy she came back to UCLA. I’m proud of all she’s achieved.”

“Lindsay is a fantastic coach, and I’m so glad she’s back in the college game, and in So Cal. She’s done a terrific job at USC.”

Last year’s No. 1 recruit, Kiki Rice, has already had a triple-double this season for the Bruins. UCLA Athletics photo.

Unsurprisingly, both coaches see room for improvement in their squads.

“It’s a joy to coach them. They’re not afraid of hard work, or being pushed,” Close said. “And we are not even close to realizing our best basketball.”

Gottlieb said that her team has come a long way, but still has much growth ahead.

“We have the ability to play faster and score more points,” she said. “We’re really challenging them to be a good defensive team, and to be disruptive.”

Players from both teams said the nonconference portion of the season has prepared them well for what will be the last season of Pac-12 play, before the conference dissolves.

Osborne said UCLA has become stronger with every game.

“I think we’ve grown a lot as a team, and got a lot more comfortable with each other, and finding each other good shots,” she said. “Our defense has improved so much, like our chemistry overall.”

“That we’ve grown so much is a reflection of the maturity of our team. We may look young, but we’re experienced.”

Forbes said that though she her teammates didn’t know each other before last summer, they did what they needed to in order to come together.

“I knew we had a lot of talent we had to put together, and we’re putting it together,” she said. “I think we’re well-coached, and everyone comes in every day with a good attitude. Everyone wants to be here. So I think that combination, with hard work, really doesn’t surprise me.”

Close said she didn’t anticipate going into conference play undefeated, or facing an unbeaten Trojan team.

“Honestly, I tried not to think about that at all,” Close said. “Our word for the year is present: we’re present for this day, growing the team for this day. We try to protect ourselves from playing for a record or a score. The bottom line is that we wanted to stay focused on getting better each day.”

Similarly, Padilla said USC’s emphasis on small steps has enabled them to catch fire.

“As much as we’ve grown and developed over the course of this nonconference season, the biggest thing that’s helped us is the consistency of our mentality from day one,” she said. “That’s been huge. From the get-go, in summer, we had big goals, and we kept that in mind while still taking things one day at a time.”

Both teams plan to take the same laser-like focus into a game where only one team will emerge still unbeaten.

“We’re going to just play our game, execute the scouting report, and lock into that,” Osborne said. “I think we’re really comfortable with who we are.”

Padilla’s confidence is similarly unwavering.

“When the time comes to play UCLA, we are ready to take them to the table,” she said.

Saturday’s game at Pauley Pavilion, which begins at 5 p.m., will be on the Pac-12 Network.