Kiki Rice is determined to make her NCAA title dreams with UCLA come true


Every day before practice, Kiki Rice wastes no time setting her intention. At the top of her note sheet as UCLA begins watching film, the sophomore point guard writes down her mission.

“We will play in the Final Four.”

Rice is trying to turn her dream into a reality as the No. 2-seeded Bruins begin NCAA tournament play this weekend. UCLA (25-6) will host tournament games for the second consecutive season, beginning with California Baptist on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion in the first round of the Albany 2 Region. The winner will face Creighton or Nevada Las Vegas in the second round Monday.

Averaging 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, the All-Pac-12 guard represents both the present and the future of UCLA’s championship hopes. Her top-ranked recruiting class, led by Rice and fellow McDonald’s All-American Gabriela Jaquez, is in only its second college season. They still are growing together as UCLA chases its first NCAA championship. But this roster, with guard Charisma Osborne returning for a fifth season, is UCLA’s best chance to win a title in coach Cori Close’s 13-year tenure.

UCLA’s previous No. 1-ranked recruiting class set the foundation for the program’s success. The group led by future WNBA draft picks Jordin Canada and Monique Billings won the 2015 WNIT championship, which led to four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, including the school’s second Elite Eight. UCLA had never even made back-to-back regional semifinal trips. But the Bruins still never won a championship with that group.

Eight years later, the program’s second top-ranked recruiting class came to finish the mission.

“They all came here, especially with Kiki … to be the first in terms of NCAA championships,” assistant coach Tasha Brown said. “That entire sophomore class embodies that same mind-set. Anything less will be a disappointment to them.”

The Bruins could add to an already historic season with a long tournament run. UCLA had its first sold-out crowd in Pauley Pavilion, matched the highest ranking in program history (No. 2) and landed three players on the All-Pac-12 team, the most for the program since 2012-13.

Every achievement feels like a baby step for Rice, who envisioned all this when she signed with the Bruins as the nation’s top-ranked point guard. But she’s still dreaming of much more.

“The reason why I came here,” Rice said, “is to win.”

The No. 2 prospect in her class, the Gatorade national player of the year and the Naismith player of the year, Rice had her pick of schools. The Bethesda, Md., native narrowed her final choices to Duke, Stanford, UCLA, Connecticut and Arizona. Longtime powers such as the Cardinal and Huskies offer recruits an easy winning vision to follow, but three of Rice’s final five had yet to claim NCAA titles. The Bruins, who last won a national championship in 1978 under the Assn. for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, were the only ones that hadn’t even reached an NCAA Final Four.

Taking the road less traveled doesn’t scare Rice. Just ask those who watched her lead her high school to its first league and state championships.

“Kiki’s just doing what Kiki does,” said Sidwell Friends coach Tamika Dudley, who took over the high school program in Washington, D.C., during Rice’s sophomore year. “This is what she was destined to do.”

The K-12 Quaker school is known more for being the alma mater of the children of presidents, including Malia and Sasha Obama, than for its sports prowess. Before Rice’s freshman year, the Quakers went 20-8 overall and 9-5 in their league. As a senior, Rice led the team to a 30-0 record, a state championship and the No. 1 ranking in the country. She was named a McDonald’s All-American, the first from Sidwell, blazing a trail that now includes future UCLA teammates Kendall Dudley and Zania Socka-Nguemen, who will join the Bruins next season.

Dynamic off the dribble and an elite midrange shooter, Rice always has been an effortless scorer. The way she finishes at the rim through contact — honed over years of playing on all-boys teams growing up — wows even her UCLA teammates. But what makes her a winner is an ability to elevate those around her.

“For someone who’s really, really good, she has this humility and this ability to make people feel valued and just as important as her even though she is at this really high level,” Dudley said. “At UCLA, of course the talent is far greater, but I think she has this natural ability to bring people along.”

Rice’s modest nature, combined with her dynamic play, resonated with the community, Dudley said. After games, crowds of autograph and selfie seekers assembled around the star point guard. Recently, Dudley recalled, an incoming Sidwell player wanted to wear the No. 1 jersey like Rice.

Now a common sight in the steadily growing crowds at Pauley Pavilion is Rice’s blue No. 1 jersey, a small step in fulfilling her mission of having an impact in college.

“I was willing to take that risk because I know I had accomplished that before and it had been totally worth it,” said Rice, who started at Sidwell in fourth grade. “It feels really special to get to the highest level somewhere that hasn’t done it because you know how much work it took to be part of the first group to do something.”

With a work ethic Brown described as “relentless,” Rice is equipped to lead the Bruins to new heights. Coaches often have to kick the 5-foot-11 guard out of the gym. Before games, Rice started mimicking Osborne’s shooting routine, arriving an hour early for extra shooting. Fellow sophomores Jaquez and Londynn Jones followed.

Soon, the whole gym was full of players shooting before games.

“She’s not afraid of a challenge,” said Jaquez, Rice’s roommate for the last two years. “She works so hard every single day, puts in the extra work and motivates me to be better.”

Rice was the jewel of UCLA’s second top-ranked recruiting class. Unlike the 2014 class, which was centered mostly in California, the 2022 group came from all corners of the country and abroad, showing UCLA’s growing recruiting footprint. Jones and Jaquez anchored the Southern California scene while forward Lina Sontag came from Germany. Christeen Iwuala followed from Texas.

Brown used to call them the Fab Five, a nod to Michigan’s famed 1991 freshman class. Since the group got even stronger with transfer Lauren Betts, the top overall recruit in 2022, Brown has toyed with calling them the Sensational Six. An official nickname still is being workshopped, but their goal is clear.

They want to be called champions.



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