Kiki Rice (Courtesy of USA Basketball)

The inaugural JWS high school basketball Player of the Year will lead the charge next week when the USA Basketball U18 national team heads to South America to compete for gold.

UCLA commit Kiki Rice is one of 12 players who will make the trip, all of whom will be seeking to claim the 10th straight gold medal for USA Basketball at the FIBA U18 Women’s Americas Championship. The international showcase is scheduled to take place June 13-19 in Buenos Aires.

The team will be led by Joni Taylor, who has seven years of head coaching experience at the college level. Taylor was 140-75 during her seven seasons at Georgia, including a 21-7 mark in 2020-21 that earned her SEC Coach of the Year honors. Then, in March, Taylor was named Texas A&M’s eighth head coach in program history.

Now comes another momentous opportunity for Taylor as she embarks on her first stint in a leading role for USA Basketball.

“When you get everyone together and there’s one mission and that mission is to go represent your country and win a gold medal, it’s a special thing,” said Taylor, who served as an assistant coach a year ago for the U19 national team. “It’s electric. The energy is electric every day. It’s intense. We all walk away from it better and proud, so I’m extremely grateful and happy to be here.”

There’s perhaps no bigger name on Taylor’s roster than Rice, who’s coming off a 2022 campaign in which she averaged 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.6 steals per game for Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.). She committed to the Bruins in November before leading Sidwell to a perfect 30-0 record and a DCSAA Class AA state title.

Taylor had high praise for Rice, whose dynamic abilities on the court are surpassed only by her character. Taylor also credited Rice with a stellar basketball IQ, which goes a long way in overcoming the hurdles of establishing a new offense in such a short period of time.

“As she continues to expand her range she’s going to be a three-level scorer that’s hard to defend,” Taylor said. “Her size gives her an advantage when she gets around the rim because she can finish with contact. She’s also a willing passer, so it’s great to have someone with that amount of talent who’s willing to pass the ball and understands how to get people in the right spots.

“I think when arguably your best player is humble and one of your hardest working, it makes it really easy for everyone else to follow.”

Rice will be joined by teammate Londynn Jones. Together, they helped lead the U16 national team to a gold-medal win over Canada in 2019. Isuneh Brady, S’Mya Nichols, Indya Nivar and Grace VanSlooten also participated in those team trials.

While Rice’s USA Basketball experience is well-documented — she was also a member of the 3×3 U18 World Cup Team that took home gold in 2019 — the team includes six players who will be making their USA Basketball debuts: Aalyah Del Rosario, Kailyn Gilbert, Chloe Kitts, Cotie McMahon, Courtney Ogden and Justine Pissott.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a part in allowing those debuts to come sooner rather than later. Taylor says the message for the newcomers is understanding what it means to represent your country on the international stage.

“That conversation has nothing to do with basketball,” Taylor said. “It’s about the way you carry yourself, the way you represent what’s on the front of your jersey, which is obviously the USA. It’s about making sure you handle moments the right way and knowing your history, knowing the people who wore your jersey number before you and what they did and how they represented and the gold medals they won.”

Taylor’s staff includes a pair of accomplished assistant coaches in DeLisha Milton-Jones and Teri Moren. Milton-Jones, a two-time WNBA champion and a three-time WNBA All-Star, just wrapped up her first season as head coach at Old Dominion. Meanwhile, Moren has nearly 20 years of head coaching experience at the collegiate level, including the last eight seasons at Indiana.

“Both have great energy,” Taylor said about her assistant coaches. “They’re both willing to serve. We all want to serve and just do what’s best for USA Basketball and to go over there and win a gold medal, so I’m extremely happy with the staff that USA Basketball put together and what we’ve been able to learn from each other and accomplish.”

Team USA will take the court Monday against Colombia and wrap up group play against Puerto Rico and El Salvador on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Tournament play begins June 17.

The 12-player roster, which was revealed Friday, was selected from 30 invitees following four days of trials in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The players are set to leave Friday, and in the days leading up to their departure, Taylor has enjoyed watching the evolution of their chemistry both on and off the court.

“There will be lifelong friendships that are formed through this experience,” Taylor said. Some of them may have the opportunity to compete next year and try out for the U-19 team.

“Who knows what’s going to happen there? But this is something that starts now and can carry on for a while.”

MEET THE TEAM

Isuneh Brady, 17, Cathedral Catholic HS (Calif.)
Hometown: San Diego, Calif.
Height: 6-3
Class: 2022
Commitment: Connecticut

Aalyah Del Rosario, 18, The Webb School (Tenn.)
Hometown: Danbury, Conn.
Height: 6-6
Class: 2023
Commitment: Undeclared

Kailyn Gilbert, 18, IMG Academy (Fla.)
Hometown: Riverview, Fla.
Height: 5-8
Class: 2022
Commitment: Arizona

Londynn Jones, 17, Corona Centennial HS (Calif.)
Hometown: Corona, Calif.
Height: 5-6
Class: 2022
Commitment: UCLA

Chloe Kitts, 17, Faith Christian Academy (Fla.)
Hometown: Oviedo, Fla.
Height: 6-3
Class: 2023
Commitment: Undeclared

Cotie McMahon, 18, Centerville HS (Ohio)
Hometown: Centerville, Ohio
Height: 5-11
Class: 2022
Commitment: Ohio State

S’Mya Nichols, 17, Shawnee Mission West HS (Kan.)
Hometown: Overland Park, Kan.
Height: 6-0
Class: 2023
Commitment: Undeclared

Indya Nivar, 18, Apex Friendship HS (N.C.)
Hometown: Apex, N.C.
Height: 5-10
Class: 2022
Commitment: Stanford

Courtney Ogden, 17, The Westminster School (Ga.)
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.
Height: 6-1
Class: 2023
Commitment: Undeclared

Justine Pissott, 18, Red Bank Catholic HS (N.J.)
Hometown: Toms River, N.J.
Height: 6-4
Class: 2022
Commitment: Tennessee

Kiki Rice, 18, Sidwell Friends School (Washington, D.C.)
Hometown: Bethesda, Md.
Height: 5-11
Class: 2022
Commitment: UCLA

Grace VanSlooten, 17, IMG Academy (Fla.)
Hometown: Ottawa Hills, Ohio
Height: 6-3
Class: 2022
Commitment: Oregon

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.