David Cloninger

Top recruiting classes battle it out ... three years later, when UCLA visits South Carolina

South Carolina's A'ja Wilson (22)
South Carolina's A'ja Wilson (22) tglantz@thestate.com

There’s a lot of familiarity, and a tad of come-uppance.

Sixth-ranked South Carolina wants to beat No. 9 UCLA on Sunday because it’s a huge game for NCAA Tournament seeding, and also to prove recruiting rankings don’t mean anything.

“When I got the scout today, I was like, ‘Dang, they were the No. 1 class, we should have been that,’ ” All-American forward A’ja Wilson said.

Three years ago, UCLA’s recruiting class was ranked first in the country. The Bruins added six players, five among the country’s top 38. They were led by No. 4 Jordin Canada, No. 8 Lajahna Drummer and No. 19 Recee Caldwell.

USC’s five-woman class was second. It featured Nos. 32, 35, 7 and Wilson, who was tabbed the top prospect in the country.

The Gamecocks went to the Final Four in their first season with their ballyhooed freshmen. The Bruins won the WNIT. As sophomores, each team bowed out in the Sweet 16 after the Gamecocks beat UCLA 68-65 in Westwood earlier in the year, thanks to a Wilson tiebreaking bucket with 4:09 to go.

Each team has had defections. Caldwell left for Texas Tech after her freshman year. The Gamecocks lost the No. 7 recruit, Jatarie White, to Texas and No. 32, Kaydra Duckett, to Coastal Carolina.

Yet there’s still a lot of familiarity. Wilson teamed with Bianca Cuevas-Moore (35) against Canada and Drummer in the 2014 McDonald’s All-American Game, and the two helped beat the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion last year.

“At this level, you’re just trying to beat a good team. Obviously, they got some very talented players that are seasoned now,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “We like the class that we brought in … well, (most) of them. But they’re holding serve with what they’ve done for our program.”

It’s the third top-10 matchup for Staley’s crew in its first 10 games. She clearly couldn’t have known what the rankings would be when she made the schedule, but she knew Ohio State, Louisville and UCLA would be stellar teams.

She packed these games together to give her team a taste of what it will see in March. It’s the means to an end.

While she hasn’t talked about tournament seeds or earning home-court advantage to her team, the Gamecocks know. It’s a quick Google search to see UCLA ranked ninth.

“If we don’t see them now, we’ll definitely see them in March,” Wilson said. “Of course, March and April are going to be on our mind. I know we all want to get there.”

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NO. 9 UCLA (8-1) at NO. 6 SOUTH CAROLINA (8-1)

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 107.5 FM

UCLA’s probable starters: G Jordin Canada 5-6 Jr. (18.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg); G Kari Korver 5-9 Sr. (7.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Kelli Hayes 6-0 Jr. (6.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg); G Nicole Kornet 6-1 Sr. (8.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Monique Billings 6-4 Jr. (17.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg)

South Carolina’s probable starters: G Bianca Cuevas-Moore 5-6 Jr. (6.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (13.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (15.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (16.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Sr. (14.7 ppg, 10.8 rpg)

Next game: South Carolina tips off at Savannah State at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

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