March 10, 2024 

‘Best day ever’: USC takes home the (final) Pac-12 Tournament title

"There is a lot of pride in being the final champions in this league.”

LAS VEGAS — USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb walked toward her celebrating team in the moments after winning the final Pac-12 Tournament, her hands on top of her head and tears in her eyes. Like she couldn’t believe what was in front of her eyes. This thing she has built.

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“This is the best day ever,” Gottlieb said.

What the Trojans’ program has done in three seasons under Gottlieb is remarkable.

USC’s win — its second conference title and the first since 2014 — cements a season in which the program established itself among the best teams in the nation, revived college women’s basketball in Los Angeles, filled the previously rarely-full Galen Center, brought celebrities courtside and reminded the nation of the legacy of a program that has included Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, the McGee twins and Tina Thompson.

After a tournament of fireworks, USC took a lot of the drama out of their final matchup with Stanford, leading nearly start-to-finish in a 74-61 victory over the top-seeded Cardinal, perhaps most impressive because it wasn’t star freshman JuJu Watkins leading the way.

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With Watkins bottled up with a defense that Gottlieb admitted she had never seen before — Stanford learning its lesson after Watkins’ 51-point effort at Maples earlier this season — McKenzie Forbes, the graduate transfer from Harvard who began her career playing for Gottlieb at Cal, simply took over.

“I have brothers and so my whole life, I’ve been punching up so nothing really scares me,” Forbes said. “I had a couple of rough shooting nights, but I never lose confidence because I know that my work is what it is. I knew I had to be aggressive tonight.”

Forbes finished with 26 points, including four 3-pointers and won the tournament’s Most Oustanding Player honors. Junior Rayah Marshall pulled down 18 rebounds in a game in which USC dominated Stanford on the boards, 48-28 (the biggest rebounding deficit since 2018), including an 18-6 margin on the offensive boards that kept the top-seeded Cardinal from staging a true comeback.

“For us, we came in and we had the momentum and honestly, we didn’t fall down,” Marshall said.
For Gottlieb, who said no five times to the USC job before becoming convinced the university was willing to invest in her vision of a resurgence and deciding to come to Los Angeles, this is a validation of what she thought the program could be again.

“I knew that if USC would truly invest, which we have, we could rocket to the top of this country,” Gottlieb said. “But we would not be here without the belief of young women, who needed to believe in something they had not seen yet.”

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Landing Watkins, a generational talent, certainly accelerated the timeline on the possibilities. Watkins’ impact on the program has been transformative. It has allowed Gottlieb to fill gaps with graduate transfers, in the short term, and will likely be a recruiting boon in the long term as the Trojans head to the Big Ten.

“JuJu raises the level of expectation,” Gottlieb said. “She makes everyone better, and everyone has responded.”

Gottlieb said her team might not have won a game like this two months ago, with Stanford blunting Watkins’ impact. She finished with nine points on 2 of 15 shooting from the floor, dogged by double-teams and Stanford guard Elena Bosgana most of the game. Five of her points came from the free-throw line.

But Forbes and Marshall compensated. So did Kaitlyn Davis, who finished with seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Kayla Williams played less than 11 minutes, but came off the bench to hit a pair of huge 3-pointers early to set the Cardinal on their heels.

“We are a better team than we were two months ago,” Gottlieb said. “We found a way because we are a true team.”

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What they may well be is a No. 1 seed when the NCAA brackets are revealed next Sunday. USC hasn’t been a No. 1 seed since Cheryl Miller was in the program in 1986.

The team that was picked to finish 6th in the conference race will be an underdog no more.

But those are preparations for another day. Sunday was about the celebration.

Forbes said she looked at Gottlieb as the confetti fell.

“I was like, ‘Am I dreaming?’” Forbes said. “It’s just unreal.”

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For Stanford, this was their fifth loss in a Pac-12 title game, against 15 victories. It was the first loss as a No. 1 seed.

And it’s a chance to get the team’s attention before the NCAA Tournament. The offensive execution lacked in this game — Stanford shooting 39.7 percent. Giving up 18 offensive rebounds will need to be cleaned up as well. Playing from behind in three straight games in this tournament caught up with the Cardinal against a team with size, strength and physicality inside.

No surprise that Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen led the way offensively with 19 and 18 points respectively. It was a tough shooting night for Hannah Jump and Brooke Demetre, who were so effective against Oregon State, but combined to shoot 2 for 11 in the game. And starting point guard Talana Lepolo finished with three points and four turnovers.

Stanford led for just 32 seconds in the game and never got closer than eight points in the second half.
“I think that really we are capable of playing better,” VanDerveer said. “But today was their day and it wasn’t that we were so bad, I thought they were very good.”

Brink said she told her team that she was proud of them.

“I’m disappointed, it’s not fun to lose. It sucks,” Brink said. “But I think we are going to use this and we will learn from it.”

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Gottlieb opened her postgame presser expressing her gratitude for the Pac-12.

“It has meant everything to my professional career and quite honestly, it’s meant almost everything in my personal life. I met my husband while I was coaching at Cal,” Gottlieb said. “It’s meaningful to me to get the championship in the last one in this iteration of what this looks like. It’s also meaningful to me that I don’t know that I would be in coaching if it wasn’t for Tara and people like her when there was no money and none of this. These things are significant to me and I feel like I needed to say that.

“There is a lot of pride in being the final champions in this league.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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