This is why they came.
The nation’s top-ranked freshman class will play on Sunday for UCLA’s first conference title since 2006, less than a year after arriving on campus, as No. 5 seed UCLA takes on No. 7 seed Washington State (23-10 ) in the Final Pac-12 Tournament at 2 p.m. at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Led by leading point guard Kiki Rice, who scored a career-high 22 points and made 12 of 13 free throws in the semifinals, the Bruins (25-8) defeated top-seeded Stanford in UCLA’s first tournament victory over the Cardinal in 17 years. Players celebrated by dumping water on coach Cori Close’s head in the locker room after the game.
But Close gave them just 90 minutes to celebrate Friday night. By Saturday morning, they were already reviewing scouting reports for Washington State, which is making its first appearance in the conference title game.
“We didn’t just come here to beat Stanford,” Rice said after Saturday’s UCLA walkthrough. “We came here to win a championship. So we have one more game to take care of.”
The freshman from Bethesda, Maryland, played a starring role in UCLA’s postseason run, averaging 15 points and 18 total assists for just two turnovers.
These big stages feel like her playground because, she says, they are an opportunity to showcase the work she put into them.
All freshmen share the big game mentality.
“That’s why they’re the No. 1 class in the country,” Close said.
Embodiment of the team’s mantra of “sometimes you, sometimes me, always us,” every freshman had his breakout moment this year. Londynn Jones was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team and scored a career-high 22 points against USC on January 8. Gabriela Jaquez immediately showed her potential in double digits in three of her first four matches.
“Any chance, they are ready,” transfer guard Gina Conti said. “They stay ready for their moment and that speaks volumes, especially as a freshman.”
Freshman forwards Christeen Iwuala and Lina Sontag came off the bench against Stanford to lift the Bruins in a physical battle against Cardinal star Cameron Brink. Sontag had four points, four rebounds and three steals, and Iwuala had four rebounds and two assists in less than seven minutes.
“It would be really easy for them to wrap it up and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to get all the rewards this year.’ I’ll wait my turn until next year,” Close said of the first-year post players after the semi-final victory. “But the strength of mind to be able to say, ‘No, I’m going to find a way to get better today, I’m going to work through it today and I’m going to be available to my team whether it’s a minute , whether it’s 20 minutes and it doesn’t matter.’ That’s really, I think, been one of the keys to our growth.”
The Bruins stormed through the Pac-12 tournament propelled by the lessons of losing three consecutive games by 10 combined points to Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
Although the results were painful, the Bruins took comfort in their performances that showed their progress. They achieved goals in passion plays and paint touches, and identified two key areas for improvement: rebounding defensively, especially from guards, and live-ball wraps.
When the Bruins executed the plan the second week of February at a home game in Oregon State and Oregon, Close was able to see her team finally find its identity.
But a loss to Washington State on Feb. 23 at Pauley Pavilion was the only major late-season hiccup, Close noted. Progress isn’t always linear, Rice admitted.
“We know we’re young and there’s going to be a lot of pieces to put together to get to this place,” Rice said. “I think we did a really good job just riding the highs, riding the lows and then putting it together at the right time.”
As she slogged through the tough Pac-12 that could send as many as eight teams to the NCAA tournament, Rice went through a period of overanalyzing her game, Close said, as teams forced her to adapt once she saw her aggressive drifts in the track began to scout.
“That’s just part of the learning curve,” Close said.
Rice’s response was to maintain her aggressiveness and earn free throws. She is 24 for 27 off the line during the Pac-12 tournament. Knowing that teams would go against her under the screens, Rice has been working on her jump shot, which is especially dangerous in the mid range.
After Saturday’s practice, Rice was among a group of players who stayed on the field for extra shots. It was UCLA’s first day off after playing three games in as many days. Close, sitting below the baseline, beckoned Rice to end her practice, but with a slight smile, Rice requested that she shoot some more.
“Two threes?” Rice asked hopefully.
Close allowed it.