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Unfinished business: Charisma Osborne hopes to lead UCLA to championship season

She knew the odds were long, but Charisma Osborne asked anyway.

Would UCLA, with a 14-12 record after losing to Oregon in the second round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament, have a chance to hear its name called during the NCAA selection show?

Coach Cori Close delivered the bad news.

“I could just see in her eyes, this will never happen again,” Close said.

One year after the Bruins missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, the senior guard has started her revenge tour averaging 20.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in leading No. 20 UCLA to its best start in three years.

Osborne is putting up career highs, is on several watch lists for player-of-the-year awards and positioning herself as a potential top-five WNBA draft pick, but the individual accolades pale in comparison to the dream she hatched as a recruit out of L.A. Windward.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne pulls up for a shot over Connecticut guard Christyn Williams during a game last season.

(Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)

“I remember when I was getting recruited here, Coach Cori and her pitch of me wanting to be on the team that wins the first [NCAA] championship here for women’s basketball,” Osborne said. “I want to be a part of that.”

The No. 20 Bruins (7-0) will put their lofty goals to the test against defending national champion and No. 1-ranked South Carolina on Tuesday at 4 p.m. PST in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks, who have wins against No. 14 Maryland and No. 2 Stanford this season, are 44-1 at home since the 2019-20 season.

While South Carolina and national player of the year Aaliyah Boston were celebrating the program’s second national title last season, UCLA was at home, already knocked out of the WNIT following an injury-riddled 18-13 season.

After the disappointment, the Bruins didn’t appear in the AP preseason top-25 rankings for the first time since 2018. But with the nation’s top recruiting class and the long-awaited debut of graduate transfer Gina Conti, the Bruins moved back into the national spotlight with a remade roster that won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Instead of relying on Osborne as a distributor and scorer at point guard, the former McDonald’s All-American is thriving in a deep rotation of guards including Conti, Wake Forest’s No. 3 assist leader who was sidelined by an injury last season, and freshman Kiki Rice. For the first time since she was a freshman playing alongside future point guard Japreece Dean, an eventual WNBA third-round draft pick, Osborne isn’t leading the Bruins in assists.

She’s back in her natural state.

“Sometimes I just felt like I was overthinking,” said Osborne, who has led the Bruins in scoring in back-to-back seasons. “Now having other guards to be able to handle the pressure, I can just play.”

Relieved of her point-guard duties, Osborne is reaching new heights by channeling the freedom she felt as an 18-year-old rookie. Assistant coach Tasha Brown joked with Osborne that she needs to get back to being “Freshman ’Ris.”

Freshman ’Ris was aggressive on offense, driving into the lane and launching three-pointers. She was a pest on defense. She is what the Bruins want.

“There was just a do-whatever-it-takes mentality in her, her freshman year,” Close said.

Coach Cori Close talks with Charisma Osborne and Natalie Chou.

Charisma Osborne, left, and Natalie Chou talk with UCLA head coach Cori Close during a game against Washington in 2021.

(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Osborne was selected to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team after setting a freshman school record with 59 three-pointers. After she dropped a career-high 32 points against Washington State, teammates referred to her as only “32” all night at dinner.

What Osborne remembers most is the freedom she felt on offense, reasoning that any scoring would come naturally after she earned playing time through defense. Now as a senior, Osborne is committed to finding her defensive groove again. Close has demanded it.

“You don’t have to carry the point guard burdens anymore, but you gotta carry this on,” said Close, who added she believes Osborne could be “the most dominant defender in the country.”

With time running out to deliver on Close’s promise of bringing the program its first NCAA championship, Osborne has a clear sense of urgency, the coach noted. The freedom she felt as a freshman is now combined with the maturity of a four-year starter with unfinished business.

No one would have thought when the five-star recruit signed with her hometown Bruins that she would enter her senior year with only one NCAA tournament appearance. But her freshman postseason was canceled in 2020. UCLA advanced to the second round during the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season. That season, which was interrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, played without fans, and kept the team secluded from family and friends, was surely the hardest times would get at UCLA, Osborne thought.

Then last season happened.

COVID-19 swept through the team after a nonconference road trip, forcing the Bruins to cancel three nonconference games. Injuries hit so severely that UCLA forfeited another game. Osborne played through a torn meniscus, gritting her teeth on every aggressive drive to the basket only to have her knee swell up after every game because of a piece of cartilage lodged in the joint. She rarely practiced, hoping to preserve her body for her 35.4-minute-average workload, which ranked third in the Pac-12.

Osborne played through the pain with hopes of carrying the team to the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Bruins were one of the first four out of the 68-team field.

“I never want to be back in that place or want UCLA to ever be back in that place,” Osborne said. “It’s just helped me hold the standard, hold myself accountable and hold my teammates accountable to the things that we say that we want.”

Charisma Osborne guards a USC player.

Charisma Osborne tries to cut off a drive by USC guard Desiree Caldwell during a Pac-12 game last season.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

After offseason knee surgery, Osborne is refreshed and refocused on improving her game with hopes of preparing herself for a professional career. An ESPN mock draft listed her as the No. 5 pick for the WNBA draft in April, although Osborne could return with additional eligibility granted during the pandemic.

The 5-foot-9 guard works individually with the UCLA staff to identify her most efficient shots and how to adjust her shot diet to play to her strengths. As a result, she’s shooting a career-best 46.4% from the field despite a career-low 30.2% clip from three-point range. On the sidelines, she has emerged as a vocal leader no longer just content to lead by example.

“[Osborne’s leadership has] been a reason why we’ve been clicking, I think, as a team a lot better than we did last year,” fellow senior Camryn Brown said. “Our team chemistry, our camaraderie as a team, it’s getting better because I think Charisma has done a really good job of using her voice.”

The Bruins flashed their potential at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where they battled through three games in as many days to win the championship. They avenged two losses to South Dakota State last season, sank a school-record-tying 16 three-pointers in an upset over then-No. 11 Tennessee and vaulted back into the AP top 25 for the first time in a year. After she led the team in scoring during the first two wins, Osborne dished a season-high six assists in the championship game against Marquette and was chosen tournament most valuable player.

After the overtime victory, the Bruins celebrated in the traditional way of champions. They pulled on white championship T-shirts, fitted black caps over their hair and raised a trophy.

If Osborne has her way, it won’t be the last championship celebration this season.

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