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UCLA sophomore guard Kiki Rice looks to make impact before her series comes out in May

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fans will get to learn plenty about Kiki Rice during an ESPN original series airs in May.

The UCLA sophomore point guard though is hoping that her play on the court can make the Bruins one of the top stories of the NCAA Tournament.

Rice and the Bruins (25-6) open tournament play on Saturday, hosting California Baptist (28-3) in the first round. The winner moves on to face either Creighton or UNLV on Monday.

The Bruins are the No. 2 seed in the Albany 2 Regional, the highest seed in program history.

“Full Court Press” — which will also feature Iowa's Caitlin Clark and South Carolina's Kamilla Cardosa — is another piece in increasing Rice's profile, which was already significant.

Rice was the first college athlete, male or female, to have an NIL deal with Jordan Brand. She also the first player with an NIL deal to have a performance basketball player exclusive shoe created by Jordan Brand — the Air Jordan 38 Low “Cherry Blossom”, which pays homage to Rice's hometown of Washington, D.C.

She also has NIL deals with Dove, Buick and Beats by Dre.

“I think I’ve just focused on continuing to balance and prioritize. I know obviously my number one priorities are basketball and school,” Rice said. “I’m not losing perspective on what is getting me those opportunities in the first place.”

UCLA coach Cori Close said she wasn't worried about the camera crews or the added exposure.

"I think it’s such a compliment to her because, honestly, it wasn’t that big a deal," Close said. "This didn’t just benefit Kiki, it benefits our whole entire program. ... It was a win-win all the way around.”

Rice said it took some time to get used to a camera crew following her around, but that it was too good an opportunity to pass up because of the added attention and exposure to the women’s game.

“We’ve had a lot of cool experiences with the cameras and everything. But I’m looking forward for it to finally come out,” Rice said about the four-part series, which will debut May 11 and 12 on ABC before being available to stream on ESPN+.

Rice was an All-Pac-12 selection for the first time after being fifth in the conference in assists, averaging 4.58 per game. She also averaged 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Senior guard Charisma Osborne said the biggest improvement in Rice's game has been her long-distance shooting. Rice shot 32.5% on 3-pointers this season after making only 21.7% as a freshman.

“Getting her to shoot open shots, it’s been so fun seeing her knock down 3s this year and get to her pull-up, Osborne said. ”She’s a three-level scorer, so being able to see all that improve has been so cool."

Coach Cori Close also lauded Rice's defense and leadership as areas where she has shown improvement.

“It has been fun to watch her grow in her defensive intensity and her pride especially in her one-on-one defense,” Close said. “She's also learning to find her voice and what’s it like to lead and influence within her personality."

The Bruins will face a California Baptist squad that is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Lancers won the Western Athletic Conference tournament in 2021, but were ineligible because it was their final season transitioning to Division I.

California Baptist, whose campus is 71 miles from Pauley Pavilion, is 12th in the nation in scoring, averaging 81.1 points per game. The Lancers are led by WAC Player of the Year Chloe Webb, who averages 21.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.

CBU, located in Riverside, California, has sold over 1,000 tickets for the game. It was in the NAIA in 2010 before going to NCAA Division II and then making the leap to Division I in 2018.

“It kind of culminates a long journey and validates a lot of hard work that’s gone into over the last 25 years by a lot of different people on campus,” coach Jarrod Olson said. “It does mean a lot to us that they come out here and support, because I do think we have a team this year that’s kind of resonated with the people in our area.”

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There aren't that many times two ranked programs face each other in the first round, but that will be the case when Creighton faces UNLV.

The seventh-seeded Bluejays (25-5) are ranked 24th in the Associated Press Top 25 while the 10th-seeded Lady Rebels (30-2) have the higher ranking at 20th.

“We were all surprised. I remember seeing our name pop up there ... We didn’t expect our name to be called up at that time,” UNLV junior guard Kiara Jackson said.

Both programs are in the tournament for the third straight year. While Creighton made the Elite Eight two years ago, UNLV is looking for its first tournament victory since 1991.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness