No. 6 USC women, freshman phenom Watkins face No. 2 UCLA, talented sophomores in battle of unbeatens – Metro US

No. 6 USC women, freshman phenom Watkins face No. 2 UCLA, talented sophomores in battle of unbeatens

Florida St UCLA Basketball
UCLA center Lauren Betts (51) and UCLA guard Charisma Osborne (20) react in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California and most of women’s college basketball has been captivated by the early-season success of undefeated USC and its freshman phenom JuJu Watkins.

Meanwhile, just down the road in Westwood, UCLA has somewhat quietly put together an undefeated start of its own — among the best starts in program history that has been spurred by the play of talented sophomores.

The two teams will meet Saturday in one of the most anticipated college basketball games in LA in sometime when the second-ranked Bruins host the sixth-ranked Trojans at a sold out Pauley Pavilion. It is the first ranked matchup between the crosstown rivals since 1985 and first in nearly 42 years where both have been in the top 10.

UCLA (11-0) has won the last eight meetings in the rivalry, but there’s no masking the “what-about-us” feel from the Bruins. They have something to prove.

“I think up until this point and really throughout the beginning of the season, I don’t think as a program we’ve been getting the attention that we deserve,” said guard Kiki Rice. “I think it’s really exciting for women’s basketball for this to be the first sellout in a really long time. This is great in general for basketball in LA.”

The Bruins were ranked fourth in The Associated Press preseason poll. They have been second the past six weeks, the highest ranking in program history.

It is the first time since 2019-20 that UCLA has started 11-0. This year’s nonconference run included wins against No. 6 UConn, 20th-ranked Florida State, No. 13 Ohio State and Arkansas. All of those games were on the road or neutral courts.

Rice was the headline recruit in last year’s freshman class that was ranked first by many recruiting services. That class got even stronger this year when Lauren Betts transferred from Stanford. Betts and Rice were the top two players in the espnW HoopGurlz Recruiting Class of 2022.

Rice, who averages 13.5 points, 6.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game, is one of four players nationally averaging at least 13 points, 6.5 assists and 5 rebounds. She has three games with at least 10 assists this season and has scored in double figures in her last five.

It will be either Rice or Charisma Osborne who will draw the assignment of guarding Watkins, who is second in the nation in scoring at 26.8 points per game. Watkins has been named the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Week six times already, and she has scored at least 30 points in five of the nine games she has played.

“JuJu is a fantastic player. She’s had a great start to the season so far,” Rice said. “It’s going to be a challenge on all of us. It’s not just her. There’s a lot of other pieces and we have to focus on stopping their transition game.”

Betts leads the nation with a 77.1 field-goal percentage and is averaging 16.9 points and 9.2 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 center has gelled with the Bruins quicker than coach Cori Close expected.

“I thought she would be hitting her stride maybe in January,” Close said. “I knew she would get there eventually. There was never a doubt in my mind, but she’s probably gone at an even faster rate than I thought she would.”

USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she has been asked about the buzz leading up to this game for the last four weeks, and that the main thing has been keeping the players focused on the task at hand.

This is the highest ranked the 10-0 Trojans have been since 1994. They have scored at least 80 points in five straight games.

“I think the excitement and the ascension has maybe happened a little faster than anyone expected,” Gottlieb said. “But we’re heading into Pac-12 play and a whole new season. We’re proud of where we are. I feel proud to be part of a game like this, but we also know it’s a continual battle to keep improving.”

Saturday’s game and the Jan. 14 contest at USC’s Galen Center set up as an exciting new chapter in the storied rivalry between the teams. It also isn’t going away any time soon with the youth coming into both teams. The Trojans have the top-ranked recruiting class for next season after the early-signing period.

The game is expected to break UCLA’s women’s basketball attendance record for a home game. The current mark of 9,530 was set in 1999 for a game against USC. Pauley Pavilion’s current basketball capacity is 13,800.

The fact that it is happening when students are on break at both schools along with competition from bowl games and high school basketball tournaments makes the sellout more special.

As Close put it, “this is when basketball in Southern California hit a major tipping point.”

“I think everybody wins in this scenario,” she said.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball