Top-ranked recruiting class has UCLA women’s basketball dreaming big

UCLA coach Cori Close instructs her players during a game.
UCLA coach Cori Close instructs her players during a win over Wyoming in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March. Close wants the Bruins to take the next step and challenge college basketball’s elite teams.
(Stephen Spillman / Associated Press)

Multi-tasking is nothing new for Cori Close. The UCLA coach led Team USA’s under-19 squad to a gold medal this summer and is the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. So when UCLA’s season-opening game fell on the same date as national signing day, it was nothing the UCLA staff couldn’t handle.

It was a doubly successful day for the No. 20 Bruins, who not only started their season with a win over Pepperdine but also locked in a bright future by signing five recruits who help make up what is expected to be the top-ranked recruiting class in the country.

With guards Kiki Rice and Londynn Jones, forward Gabriela Jaquez and centers Christeen Iwuala and Lina Sontag submitting their national letters of intent Wednesday, the first day of the signing period, the Bruins have what might be their best class ever under Close. The group, which includes two additional verbal commitments, rivals the 2014 class that featured eventual WNBA draft picks Jordin Canada and Monique Billings and led the Bruins to their second NCAA regional final appearance.


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“That class was so important, but [the message] was ‘come take us to a foundation and level to consistency that we’ve never been to,’ ” Close said of the previously top-ranked class. “I’m so thankful and proud of what that class did. … But we haven’t gone to a Final Four yet. We haven’t won a Pac-12 championship yet since I’ve been here.

“So really, when I was looking at this particular class, it was about who has the drive, who has the mindset, who has the sacrifice, who has the heart of a lion to take the baton from such great players, the people that came before them, and take us to being consistent championship contenders?”

Rice, the No. 2 overall prospect in the country, is the headliner. The 5-foot-11 point guard is a two-time gold medalist on Team USA’s youth squads, is the highest-ranked recruit in program history and declined offers from Connecticut, Arizona, Stanford and Duke.

An elite lead guard who is expected to run UCLA’s offense, Rice will pair with Jones, a 5-foot-5 guard whom Close expects to play on and off the ball. Close compared Jones to Japreece Dean, another undersized guard who thrived as a shooting guard.

The No. 20 Bruins have eight new players this year, but they’re keeping their old expectations for tournament success.

Jones, who is finishing her high school career at Corona Santiago, is one of two top local recruits to choose the Bruins, joining Camarillo’s Gabriela Jaquez. The 6-foot forward is the younger sister of UCLA men’s basketball star Jaime and plays with the same tenacity and grit that her brother used to lead the Bruins to the Final Four last season.

“The Jaquez blue-collar ways and competitive excellence and intangibles runs in the blood of that family,” Close said. “That’s exactly what Gabs has too. … You just can’t put a price tag on what she brings to every possession.”

Along with two local stars, the Bruins showed their far-reaching recruiting ability in the latest class, which includes prospects from four states and three countries. Rice is from Bethesda, Md., and Iwuala hails from Texas, where the San Antonio native rose to 49th on ESPN’s recruiting list.

Two years after UCLA signed an exclusively international recruiting class, overseas talent continues to flock to Westwood, the latest example being Sontag, a German youth national team member.

UCLA also has verbal commitments from New York guard Paris Clark and Spanish point guard Elena Buenavida Estevez.

New USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers, is teaching the talented Trojans championship traits.

The large signing class will guarantee a second straight year of significant roster turnover for the Bruins, who have eight new players on this year’s team. The latest group of players is eager to get going, Close said. Rice is already planning film breakdowns on Zoom and studied UCLA’s first game against Pepperdine. Jaquez asked Close how many tickets she can line up for friends and family, who hope to watch the new batch of recruits take UCLA to new heights.

“We not only want to win, but we want to win with others and we want people to feel a part of it,” Close said. “I hope people will get excited about our program, they’ll come alongside us and they’ll have a great ride to championship runs.”