UCLA freshman phenom Kiki Rice had her pick of colleges to choose from, coming out of the D.C. area, a McDonalds All-American.
But she had prioritized her goals, what she wanted to accomplish as a college basketball player.
“The opportunity to bring a first national championship here,” Rice told The Sporting Tribune earlier this month during the Pac-12 Tournament at Mandalay Bay. “I think going to UConn, going to South Carolina, going to Stanford – I don’t take anything away from the coaches or the programs, they’ve obviously done incredible things there and been very successful – but I think being the first to do something at a school is incredible. It really makes the accomplishment that much more special. So I really want to bring UCLA its first national championship and I’m excited to do that.”
Rice and the fourth-seeded Bruins embark on their NCAA Tournament journey Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion, where they’ll face 13-seed Sacramento State.
Whether or not the Bruins can weave their way through a rugged bracket is entirely another story, but with Rice’s college career in an infancy stage, she’s embracing the tradition that comes with playing in Westwood.
“Everyone knows about UCLA and you hear about it and the rich basketball tradition there,” she said. “But coming out when I got to campus, I could just tell how much it meant to everyone to wear those four letters across your chest. The basketball history, John Wooden, all the great teams that they’ve had in all different sports at UCLA – it means a lot.
“So when you’re representing the university, you just know there’s a high standard to stand up to.”
It’s a standard she has no trouble living to, which is why UCLA coach Cori Close honed in on the nation’s top recruit and wanted to land her.
From her work ethic to being a great teammate, to being a phenomenal student who’s maintained a 4.0 grade point average, Close says she’s lucky to have a student of the game like Rice in Westwood.
“I actually haven’t been surprised by much. That’s why we recruited her so hard, is that she has the mental, she has the work ethic,” Close said. “She has the character. I think the sky’s the limit. I think she’s gonna grow her handle, her passing, I think you’re gonna see her assist numbers go up, her 3-point percentage, her defense – she hasn’t disappointed on any level.”
For Rice, she said the biggest adjustment was simply facing the unknown, and battling it head-on by understanding her role immediately.
“Coming in as a freshman you never really know what to expect. I came in, I started, I have a pretty big role, definitely a ton of adjustments … everyone on this level is bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic,” Rice said. “So still figuring out how to do what I do and do it in the most effective way possible, but also be able to adjust to everyone else’s games at a higher level.”
It doesn’t get any higher than the NCAA Tournament, where the Bruins will look to bounce back from a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 title game.
UCLA will undoubtedly have its stringent defensive play enforced to take the sting out of the Hornets, while employing an offense that averages 70.2 points per game and is combustible when Rice catches fire.
Rice is averaging 11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, but has scored in double digits in 23 of UCLA’s 34 games this season. Down the stretch, Rice saw an uptick in her offense, averaging 13.4 points per contest behind an effective field-goal percentage of 38.2%.
As poised and mature as they come, Rice said learning from losses – not the earning of monumental wins – is why the Bruins have confidence they can make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
“I feel like throughout the season we’ve been so close so many times in terms of beating top teams,” Rice said. “We were super close in South Carolina, down there at the beginning of the year, the number one team in the country. At Stanford, we were tied (or) maybe up two in the fourth quarter at some point.
“We’ve just had a ton of really close losses … so I think knowing that we can finish out the game and put it together definitely gives us confidence going into March Madness.”
The goal was simple, and her first crack at accomplishing it begins Saturday at Pauley.