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Gatorade Athlete of the Year Kiki Rice sets sights on next mission at UCLA

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Kiki Rice poses with her trophy after being named the 2022 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year on Tuesday, July 19, in Los Angeles. (Photo provided by Gatorade)

LOS ANGELES — Kiki Rice has racked up enough individual awards this year to cover the hardwood from baseline to free-throw line.

The incoming UCLA freshman added to her collection Tuesday night when she was named the 2022 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, an honor she described as the most meaningful of all her accolades thus far.

Clutching the shiny metal “G” trophy, Rice said she did not expect to win and thanked her parents and coaches. She also thanked Gatorade for an “incredible experience,” during which she and her fellow athletes were treated “like stars” over the past few days.

“Winning Gatorade Athlete of the Year, amongst all the other incredible athletes, it’s an awesome honor,” Rice said. “It’s a testament to the hard work I’ve put in and the forces around me.”

The Gatorade Athlete of the Year ceremony on Tuesday in Los Angeles. (Photo provided by Gatorade)

The two-sport star made her biggest mark on the court, averaging 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game her senior season for Sidwell Friends School (D.C.) and leading her team to a 30-0 record and a national championship. In March, she was named Just Women’s Sports’ inaugural high school basketball Player of the Year.

Rice was also the D.C. Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She credits playing soccer with helping her footwork in basketball and keeping her in shape. Rice said she’s in peak condition by the time basketball season comes around because soccer season is right before, and that requires a lot of running.

“For a few months of the year, focusing a little less on basketball and having some time to be with a new group of people, play under different coaches and enjoy a different sport is really valuable,” Rice said. “I definitely encourage athletes to continue to play multiple sports as long as you can. It shows you don’t need to specialize at such a young age. There are still opportunities there.”

Rice, who moved into her Westwood dorm less than two weeks ago and signed with Wasserman for NIL representation, is interested in sports business but has not yet decided on a major. She’s received plenty of buzz throughout her prep career, gaining more than 35,000 followers on Instagram before even playing a college game.

Off the court, she sees college as “an opportunity to grow in different areas, take interesting classes, meet new people and dabble.” Rice has found the basketball adjustment from high school to be a challenge, adding that she loves to compete.

“What’s not to love about L.A.?” Rice said of her first couple of weeks living in Southern California. “And the campus is super nice.”

As a high school star, Rice had no shortage of college suitors, including Stanford, UConn, Duke and Arizona.

Ultimately, the 18-year-old chose UCLA because she felt the school’s coaches would best be able to help her develop into the professional basketball player she hopes to become. She also cited the strong connections she built with players and coaches on her official visit to Westwood last year.

Rice will now be coached by UCLA’s Cori Close, a former standout point guard herself who averaged 15.4 points and 8.3 assists per game her senior season at UC Santa Barbara.

“Coach Cori does a great job of motivating me, and she holds me accountable,” Rice said. “I’m going to grow a ton under her, so I’m really excited about the next four years.”

When asked about the Bruins’ stacked 2022 recruiting class, before the question was finished, Rice excitedly pointed out that UCLA boasts the No. 1 class in the nation. The group includes two guards, Gabriela Jaquez and Londynn Jones, with whom Rice has already won. She and Jaquez shared co-MVP honors at the 2022 McDonald’s All-American Game, while Rice and Jones won gold for Team USA this summer at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship. Rice took home MVP honors, while Jones contributed 15 points. The Bruins have three incoming freshmen ranked by ESPN in the top 25, and post player Christeen Iwuala from Texas gives them four slotted inside the top 50.

According to Rice, the McDonald’s game foreshadowed what lies ahead in Westwood this coming season.

“We have a ton of talent, and the fact that we were both able to shine in a game like that shows there really is a bright future at UCLA,” she said. “Gabs is an incredible player who has a high basketball IQ.”

(Photo provided by Gatorade)

Rice is pleased with the entire incoming freshman group so far and is most impressed by everyone’s willingness to learn and accept constructive criticism.

“We’re all coming from being the best players on our high school and AAU teams,” she said. “To come in a new environment and still have a ton to learn can be difficult at times, but we’ve done a great job so far. I’m excited for this group because we’re going to be really good.”

Before Rice has played a single game at the collegiate level, her talent is no secret. Stanford star Haley Jones, who met Rice on her official visit to Palo Alto last year, described the incoming freshman as an “amazing player and person.”

“There’s a reason she won the National Player of the Year Award — she does it all,” Jones said with a smile. “I’ll see her in the Pac this year, so that’ll be exciting.”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @JJTheJuggernaut.