UCLA was unranked in the preseason for the first time in four years, but Cori Close wasn’t worried. The coach looked at her team’s schedule that included a three-game tournament in the Bahamas and a road contest against the defending national champions and knew UCLA’s time to prove itself would come soon enough.
“We’re either going to step up and earn that or we’re not,” Close said, “and look at where we are.”
Entering their Pac-12 opener, the No. 10 Bruins are back where they hoped to be, rising into the top 10 with a 9-1 record. UCLA starts its conference slate against USC on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Galen Center.
UCLA powered its way back into the national spotlight with wins over South Dakota State, Tennessee and Marquette — all teams that have been ranked this season — in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where the dynamic guard duo of Charisma Osborne and Kiki Rice led the team to three wins in three days. Then UCLA solidified its standing as a legitimate contender by challenging No. 1 South Carolina in a competitive loss in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since Dec. 3, 2020.
With Rice and fellow freshmen Gabriela Jaquez, Lina Sontag and Londynn Jones playing key minutes, the Bruins were tied with South Carolina entering the fourth quarter. At halftime, the Bruins, who didn’t have 6-foot-2 freshman forward Christeen Iwuala because of an undisclosed injury, were even on the boards with South Carolina, which Close estimated was the best rebounding program in the country over the past decade. UCLA stayed within two possessions until 1:11 left on the clock before South Carolina pulled away for a 73-64 win.
“We showed a lot … and we were proud of that, but it’s about that one possession we could have gotten another rebound or that one possession where we should have guarded the high post better,” said forward Emily Bessoir, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. “It’s just about those small details that count so much in the end.”
While the Bruins proved themselves early during a difficult nonconference slate, Thursday’s rivalry game will be the first major test for USC. During their best start since the 2018-19 season, the Trojans (9-0) faced only one team — No. 89 San Francisco — ranked in the top 100 of this week’s NET rankings. The Trojans averaged a Pac-12-worst 16.7 turnovers in the wins, but still blew out their overmatched opponents by an average of 26.1 points.
With games against UCLA and at Texas coming next, the Trojans know that their mistakes will grow more costly as competition stiffens.
“It’s crucial to be able to take care of the ball,” guard Destiny Littleton said. “The first nine games, we were able to do things that we’re not going to be able to do against UCLA and Texas.”
Littleton, a former South Carolina guard, is one of seven transfers in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s second year with the Trojans. While the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant felt encouraged by the foundation she set during her first year, the significant roster turnover left the coach feeling like she was back at square one.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like we really hit go in March of last year,” Gottlieb said.
In remaking the roster, Gottlieb searched for culture-defining players whose impacts in the locker room would be just as great as their play on the court. Littleton, who ranks second on the team in scoring with 13.4 points and is tied for the lead in assists with four per game, brings valuable national championship experience from her time with the Gamecocks.
Forward Kadi Sissoko was a two-year starter at Minnesota, but didn’t hesitate when presented with the opportunity to help shape the future of USC. The French youth national team member leads the Trojans in scoring with 16.3 points and is sixth in the Pac-12 in shooting percentage at 59.8%.
“I want to change the culture [at USC],” Sissoko said. “It starts with winning games to show people that we’re out here, we’re trying to win games and draw people to come to our games.”
The Trojans have lost six consecutive games to their crosstown rivals. The Bruins, fueled by their top-ranked freshman class that’s living up to the billing, are in position to return to the NCAA tournament after missing the cut last year for the first time since 2015.
“This team is not afraid of big moments,” Close said. “I think they’re confident beyond their years of experience and that’s a tremendous thing and they‘ve earned that because they’ve worked really hard.”