If there’s one play UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close could use to introduce her new star freshman it’s Charisma Osborne stealing an inbound pass late in a scrimmage against Louisville and scoring the game-winning layup.
It showed the three-time Los Angeles Times player of the year’s defensive acumen, offensive skill and fierce competitiveness in a one-second snapshot. It is just the first of many clutch plays the five-star prospect is expected to make for the Bruins during her career.
“She’s got an assassin mentality,” Close said.
Freshmen should play key roles for UCLA and USC this season and in the future as both programs welcome top-10 recruiting classes.
The Bruins signed two McDonald’s All-Americans in Osborne and guard Jaden Owens. The Trojans have seven freshmen, including McDonald’s All-American center Angel Jackson and two Gatorade state players of the year, Alissa Pili (Alaska) and Endiya Rogers (Texas).
So as much as Close would like to root against the crosstown team, she can’t help but grow giddy over the outlook of both programs.
“Rising tides lift all boats,” Close said. “We want to raise the tide of women’s basketball in Los Angeles.”
Close’s Bruins have led the charge as they are coming off four straight Sweet 16 appearances. Before this streak, the program had never advanced to consecutive Sweet 16s.
The 11th-ranked Bruins, who open their season against Weber State at home Tuesday, have what Close called her best three-point shooting team in her nine-year UCLA tenure. Baylor transfer Natalie Chou, a 6-foot-1 guard, is eligible after sitting out last season. She kept her game sharp by torching teammates in practice as a member of the scout team.
“She would light us up,” said junior forward Michaela Onyenwere, who led UCLA in scoring last year with 18.3 points a game. “We were like, ‘Dang! You’re supposed to be our teammate!’ ”
Last season, the Bruins ranked second-to-last in three-point percentage in the Pac-12 at 30.6% and last in three-pointers made with five per game.
Now, among Chou, Osborne, Owens, Onyenwere and senior guard Japreece Dean, who led the team in three-point percentage last season at 35.2%, Close has trouble keeping track of all her long-range threats. She hopes they stay on target as the season progresses.
“There are a lot of teams with great potential in November but they don’t materialize in March because they’re not willing to pay the price to earn it,” said Close, whose team went 22-13 last season. “But I’m really hopeful that this team is going to be willing and committed to do the things that it takes to earn the level of potential that they want to see come to fruition.”
Despite UCLA’s growth into a perennial postseason contender, USC pulled off an upset in Pauley Pavilion last year with a 72-67 win. The Trojans haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2014, although they won 20 games two seasons ago — the first of coach Mark Trakh’s second stint with the program — and went 17-13 last season.
Both were supposed to be rebuilding years, Trakh said. Now with nine new players (seven freshmen and two graduate transfers), the Trojans are almost back at square one.
“The young kids that we have right now, I think it’s going to be a good foundation to move forward and build on,” Trakh said. “But it’s going to take a minute.”
The Trojans, depleted by preseason injuries, may be forced to start four freshmen in their opener at Cal State Northridge on Tuesday, Trakh said. USC is hoping to return to full force by conference play.
Captains Kayla Overbeck and Shalexxus Aaron are among the players who are injured to start the year. Transfer guard Stephanie Watts, a former ACC freshman of the year at North Carolina, is also out. Trakh would not disclose the players’ injuries.
The only healthy captain is sophomore guard Desiree Caldwell, who averaged 3.1 points while playing in all 30 games last year. Caldwell is the “heart and soul” of the program, Trakh said.
“During my recruiting process , all coach Trakh told me was we will get to the Final Four one day and honestly, I’ve never lost sight of that,” Caldwell said. “Right now, it’s just about building a Final Four culture.”