The No. 2 UCLA Bruins pulled off an early season statement victory, 78-67, against No. 6 UConn on Friday night at the Cayman Islands Classic, the program's first-ever win over UConn.
Despite a couple of good runs and a 31-point performance by Paige Bueckers, the Huskies were handed their second loss of the season and now hold a 3-2 record.
"Obviously so much respect for UConn and the program they have become ... but we really were confident that if we executed the game plan, we were going to win," UCLA head coach Cori Close said. "I say that with great respect. I really believe in what this team is building. I didn't think we played our best basketball, we had some moments that we really need to clean up. But I'm really proud of this next step and who we are becoming."
UCLA sophomore guard Kiki Rice had a breakout game by registering a career-high 24 points, and she flirted with a triple-double by adding 11 rebounds and eight assists.
The Bruins looked confident from the beginning, starting the game on a 10-0 run with eight of those points belonging to Rice. UCLA went on to outscore the Huskies 28-12 in the first quarter, including going 5 of 7 from beyond the arc as a team.
However, the second quarter didn't go as smoothly as the Huskies found their footing, and the Bruins only made four field goals in those 10 minutes to help UConn cut the deficit to just 39-34.
Close's squad regrouped and UCLA came out strong again in the third quarter, scoring 22 points and holding UConn to just eight points. Charisma Osborne reminded everyone that she is the veteran leader for the Bruins with her 3-point shooting. Osborne finished the night with 18 points, all of them coming from beyond the arc.
"I always laugh when people ask me what I said at halftime. It must have really sucked before the game," Close said. "I just don't think it relies on those kinds of things. I think it means we need cerebral, purposeful adjustments to be made, and I need a team that knows how to execute those. They don't need me to fire them up."
Although UConn rallied to outscore the Bruins in the final quarter 25-17 but the Huskies' effort wasn't enough to complete the comeback. Their other usual leading scorer, Aaliyah Edwards, fouled out with 2:31 remaining, leaving the game with just five points via two fields goals and one made free throw.
With this win, UCLA improves to 5-0 this season. Next up for the Bruins is Niagara on 1 p.m. ET, Saturday. Meanwhile, UConn will try to bounce back against Kansas on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Here are some takeaways from the game:
The Kiki Rice stock is trending up
Rice was one of the top players of the Class of 2022. She was good as a freshman and averaged 11.6 points per game, but it looks like she is ready to take her game to the next level.
Rice -- who shot 41.1% from the field last season -- shot 60% against UConn with nine field goals. Two of those were 3-pointers, which was a shaky area for her last year, going 13 of 60 from beyond the arc in 37 games.
"I feel like I've put in a lot of work on my shot to shoot behind that, just knock down the open three and make threes on defense," Rice said when discussing what helped her have a successful day. "I came out confident and aggressive, and I also thought everyone was moving really well around me ... everyone played off each other really well."
UCLA is still Osborne's team
The Bruins have a deep roster with five players averaging at least 12 points per game. Rice was the star on Friday, while sophomore center Lauren Betts leads this season's stat sheet with 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. However, Osborne, who has returned for a fifth season, has been the key for this team to run smoothly.
She averages 17.4 points per contest, with some nights being more "quiet" than others. Against Purdue during the season opener, Osborne scored 11 points but gave her team's offense a big push with seven assists.
Against UConn, Osborne hit six 3-pointers for the second time this season -- as she put up 24 points and 10 rebounds against Bellarmine on Nov. 12. Osborne said she put in a lot of work in the summer to make her shot consistent, and her coach has definitely noticed.
"It took a lot of courage for her to come back. A lot of people can say whatever they want, but she is doing it," Close said during the postgame media conference. "She had unfinished business. You show me a guard in the country that plays both ends at an elite level like her. She can facilitate. She shoots the three. She attacks the basket. She is an elite defender, and I think she is getting rewarded for her choice and she is the one that has made it all happen."
The Bruins start strong, but they have to be careful
UCLA has come out strong in each of its five games so far, outscoring opponents 120-39 in all the first quarters combined. It's a dominant statistic for sure, but opponents are making adjustments quickly and outscoring the Bruins 107-92 in the second quarter.
The Bruins had an upset scare the previous game against Princeton, a game in which they were outscored 27-15 in the second quarter -- the most points UCLA has given up in a 10-minute period all season.
On Friday, UConn was starting to gain momentum by holding UCLA to 26.7% shooting from the field in the second quarter.
However, UCLA once again regained control after the break. This was only the fifth game of the season and Close isn't concerned, as long as her team keeps making adjustments. The coach said the main one they talked about at halftime was ball screen defense.
"I'm proud that we've started well every game, but there's been different situations in every game and I think, yeah, we definitely have different things and challenges we have to respond to in every game," she said. "But I wouldn't agree that that's a trend we need to be worried about."
UConn has talent, but consistency is needed
If Friday's game showed the Huskies anything it is that the consistency isn't quite there yet. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this is the first time UConn has had multiple double-digit losses in the first five games of the season since 1991-92. The Huskies also lost 92-81 to N.C. State on Nov. 12.
As head coach Geno Auriemma pointed out, a 30+ point performance by Bueckers (or any other player) will not guarantee a win.
"You can can't beat a really good team with one player," he said. "So yeah, it was disappointing that we didn't get more contributions from more people. Our combinations are all screwed up right now, so that's got to get sorted out. We struggled, we had our runs and there is just not enough. We just didn't have enough. It's very disappointing."
Bueckers, who sat out last season because of a torn ACL, is leading the team with 20.4 points per game. Aaliyah Edwards -- who is contributing 15.4 points per game -- is the only other double-figure scorer remaining now thatbecause of a knee injury.
UCLA held Bueckers to 9-of-23 shooting, but she was still able to hit five 3-pointers. However, Edwards struggled more, going 2 of 12 from the field and fouling out as UConn attempted a comeback in the fourth quarter. KK Arnold and Aubrey Griffin contributed with 11 points each, but overall the team shot at 33.3% from the field through the night. Sure, they had a few runs, but UCLA kept finding an answer to their attacks.
Staying healthy continues to be a problem. Junior guard Caroline Ducharme was out because of neck spasms. She made the trip to the Cayman Islands but it's unclear if she will play on Saturday because she is "day-to-day."