December 16, 2022
Coaches put state of women’s basketball at the forefront in latest chapter of UCLA-USC rivalry
UCLA's Cori Close and USC's Lindsay Gottlieb want their teams' rivalry to be the hottest ticket in Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES — Cori Close’s UCLA Bruins had just pulled off a thrilling 59-56 win at crosstown rival USC on Thursday, and as she sat before the assembled media, she lamented the fact that the final regular-season meeting between the teams is in just a couple of weeks.
“I really am frustrated that the next one is Jan. 8. I do not think that’s in the best interest of growing our game and building the enthusiasm through the conference season. I just don’t think that’s best,” Close said. “I do think that is hurtful to the growth of our game … We start school on the 9th, so it’s happening before our school comes back on both times, and I do think there’s a way to make that avoidable.”
UCLA finished its fall final exams last week and USC finished this week, and with it being the holiday season, many students are not around to take part in one of the oldest sports rivalries in Los Angeles. It will be the same situation in a couple of weeks with both schools not starting spring classes until Jan. 9. That’s not exactly conducive to building excitement for what should be the hottest ticket in town for women’s basketball.
“We’ve got work to do in Southern California,” Close said. “I’m not trying to have anything less for male athletes or the men’s basketball players, but we can do better … We have the 10th-ranked team in the country and I got the No. 1 recruiting class, and people should be wanting to tell their stories.”
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For those who showed up on Wednesday evening to watch two of the best teams in the conference to this point, the game certainly did not disappoint. Although the Trojans were down by double digits at the half, they used a furious defensive effort to give themselves a chance to pull out a huge win in front of a home crowd that was fired up all game long.
Trojans head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was pleased overall with not only her team’s effort to get back into the game, but also the enthusiasm and energy that the home crowd displayed in one of the biggest games of the season.
“When I took the job, I envisioned the women’s college basketball scene in LA being what it deserves to be,” Gottlieb said. “I think this is a start. The crowd was great. UCLA is a top-10 team and our expectations are to compete and to win. Kudos to our marketing people in the crowd, but I think this is only the beginning. I told our players in [the locker room], the moral victory thing is not part of what we’re trying to do here. We want to win and we want to win now. That said, I’m really proud of our fight and our grit and our intensity.”
Now in her second season as head coach of the Trojans, Gottlieb is tasked with trying to build the program back up to its former glory days — Cheryl Miller, Pam and Paula McGee won two national titles, part of a legacy that also includes Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson — and reignite the passion for women’s basketball in the city.
Last season, USC finished 12-16, 5-12 in conference play, and was ousted by the Bruins in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Coming into Thursday’s matchup, the Trojans were 9-0. Despite their winning streak being snapped, Gottlieb has seen a couple of things from her team that give her confidence moving forward.
“I think there’s a care factor that’s really special. Someone mentioned that to me last year: Does the game really matter?” Gottlieb said. “It matters to them; they care. There’s a pop to our step. We’re always trying to challenge them to be better all the time, but they come back and respond, and I think there’s a bounce to us. We showed that we’ve got some warriors … It kills me to lose this game, but this is a group we want to rock with.”
For UCLA senior guard Charisma Osborne, this may very well be her final game against USC in the Galen Center. She’s been a part of this rivalry for the past four years, and she’s always ready to play. She didn’t have the best shooting game, finishing 6-for-24 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range. But she hauled in 13 rebounds, five of them on the offensive end, and found ways to be effective.
“Playing here is always really tough because, obviously, they want to beat us really badly,” Osborne said. “And honestly, this is probably one of my harder times playing here. I think they did a great job trying to take us out of our things, but I think we did a great job of really just taking this crosstown rivalry to heart … I’m super proud we were able to do that.”
On the opposite end, Trojans graduate transfer Kadi Sissoko did everything in her power to try to lead USC to a win in her first experience in this rivalry. She finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, and for stretches of the game, her off-the-dribble attack was the only consistent offense for USC. She echoed Gottlieb’s assessment that there are plenty of reasons to feel confident about this team’s ceiling.
“I’m actually proud of our team. I see growth and I’m very optimistic for what’s coming for us,” Sissoko said. “We’re working really hard in practices and it has shown in games. Only the sky is the limit for this team. We’re going to keep working on the things we need to work on, and that was a great game.”
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Both teams are slated to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten beginning in the 2024-25 season. Even so, both are committed to continuing this rivalry as well as continuing to strengthen the state of women’s basketball in Los Angeles.
“I don’t care what conference I’m in,” Close said. “Lindsay and I are going to work together to make a difference in LA.”