July 22, 2023 

How UCLA teammates Jones and Rice are thriving together at FIBA Under-19 World Cup

The pair previously won two gold medals with Team USA

MADRID, Spain — The first time Londynn Jones and Kiki Rice met each other, they had no idea how intertwined their careers would become. The 14-year-old eighth graders were growing up on opposite sides of the U.S. and meshing with other prodigies at the Blue Star Basketball Camp. Fast forward to 2023, and the UCLA sophomores are two of the breakthrough players for Team USA at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Madrid, Spain.

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Jones scored 17 points in a 112-49 group-stage win over Chinese Taipei and is averaging 9.7 points per game. Rice is scoring 10.7 per game and has hit double figures on four occasions. She posted a high of 15 points in the same game that Jones recorded 17.

“We’ve been a part of other USA teams, but this is the first World Cup that we’ve done,” Rice said. “It’s been a great experience, a great environment with tough competition. Londynn and I played the whole [2022-23] year together and other USA teams together. So we know how each other plays, and we help each other out. It’s been great having someone you’re so comfortable with at this experience.”

The 5’11 Rice was the National High School Player of the Year at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., while the 5’4 Jones was a state high school champion in Riverside, California. They previously teamed up to win gold medals at the 2019 Under-16 FIBA Americas Championship and the 2022 Under-18 FIBA Americas Championship. In their recently completed freshman season at UCLA, Rice averaged 11.6 points per game and Jones averaged 8.6, leading the Bruins to the Sweet 16.

Improvements from Under-18 Americas Championship

Under-19 World Cup coach Joni Taylor is well acquainted with the tandem. Her first stint with USA Basketball was at the 2022 Under-18 FIBA Americas Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rice was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, scoring 14.3 points per game. In the gold-medal win over Canada, Rice tallied 17 points, while Jones added 15.

Even with how well they played then, Taylor said it’s apparent how much Rice and Jones have developed in just one year.

“Londynn is a much better offensive player,” Taylor said. “She has done a much better job of knowing when to facilitate and when to take her shot. She has even become a more accurate 3-point shooter than I remember, and she was really good last year.

“Kiki Rice is explosive with the ball in her hands. I think she has learned how to play without the ball in her hands a lot better. We played her at the point guard last year, and this year, we are playing her off the ball. … What I am most impressed about with Kiki is her defense. That was an area where we challenged her last year, and at UCLA, she was challenged as well. But she is a much better defender. We have been putting her on other teams’ best guards, and I am really proud of her commitment to being a two-way player.”

Playing against the top college-aged women in the world is also a change from competing against elite high schoolers from North and South America.

“The age group definitely matters,” Jones said. “We are playing against different age groups, different countries and competition. I think it puts us into a challenge, but I think we all work very hard and are all prepared, so we need to get the job done while we’re here.”

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More international experience for UCLA

It’s been a busy summer for the Bruins. Not only are Rice and Jones competing in Spain, but Charisma Osborne and Lauren Betts also won the silver medal at the AmeriCup in Mexico, while Emily Bessoir and Lina Sontag represented Germany at EuroBasket in Slovenia. Germany advanced from EuroBasket to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the first time since 1980.

“We are the first program to have four of us compete for a USA team at the same time, so that is an accomplishment,” Jones said. “That just shows the hard work that we do and the dedication we have.”

The 6’7 Betts won the gold medal at the previous edition of the Under-19 World Cup at Hungary in 2021 as a high school student, with UCLA’s Cori Close serving as head coach. And Rice’s trophy case also includes a gold medal at the 2021 3X3 Under-18 World Cup in Hungary.

All the international experience that the UCLA players have gained this summer could pay off big for the Bruins in 2023-24.

“I think this year is going to be a breakout year for UCLA,” Rice said. “We’re going into it ready to compete and to prove something to everyone else. We have a ton of talent coming back. The five freshmen [from last season] all have more experience under our belts, so I am really looking forward to next year.”

Written by Scott Mammoser

Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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