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UCLA commit Kiki Rice headlines U18 USA Basketball roster

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.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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