January 16, 2024 

USC uses young talent, grad transfer leadership to deliver UCLA its first loss

'JuJu and the nerds' pay dividends for the Trojans

Los Angeles basketball fans had the privilege of witnessing a second top-10 showdown in as many weeks on Sunday afternoon, when the USC Trojans took down the rival UCLA Bruins. The sellout crowd was complete with a classic lineup of LA celebrities — including Saweetie, Chris Brown, Cheryl Miller and Candace Parker — a plethora of children sporting way-too-big JuJu Watkins jerseys, and lines that started outside Galen Center hours before tipoff.

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USC was led, yet again, by its freshman phenom Watkins, who, despite struggling to get anything going from the floor to start the game, ultimately finished with 32 points and 10 hard-fought rebounds, while shooting 16-for-16 from the free-throw line. While Watkins shone as only she can, what was perhaps even more impactful for both teams was the display of fifth-year senior leadership from McKenzie Forbes (USC), Kayla Padilla (USC) and Charisma Osborne (UCLA).

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“I don’t think I went into the transfer portal and said ‘OK, we have JuJu coming. We need to get three Ivy League kids.’ But the way it’s turned out, I sometimes refer to [them] as ‘JuJu and the nerds,’” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb told reporters after the victory on Sunday. “There’s something unique about this team. To have three Ivy League grad transfers and Roxane [Makolo], who is a mature kid, they’ve gotten over themselves. They’re so supportive of JuJu.”

Forbes, who started her career at Cal before transferring to and graduating from Harvard, has played a crucial role for the Trojans all season. On Sunday, when both teams struggled to get any offensive rhythm in the first quarter, Forbes hit contested threes in back-to-back plays to put her team up 15-6. USC never trailed again.

After a Trojans loss to UCLA on Dec. 30, Gottlieb said, “Kenzie is like a coach out there. She’s so cerebral. And she’s older. She’s the smartest player I’ve ever had.”

Forbes’ play Sunday showed her poise, her leadership and her ability to bring the team together in moments where things weren’t going quite right. After the game, Gottlieb added, “I don’t see how McKenzie’s not on everyone’s draft list.”

Penn transfer Kayla Padilla added the same calm and confidence, supplementing the energetic play of Watkins with her own defensive tenacity. She had multiple backcourt steals and deflections, pressuring the ball consistently and making it hard for UCLA guards to find a rhythm. Forbes and Padilla consistently brought the team together at dead balls, huddling their squad after both the good and the bad and demonstrating calm leadership despite 10,258 fans heating up the Galen Center, full to the very last row.

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Watkins, despite all her success and awe-inducing plays, had challenging moments on offense Sunday, missing 14 field goals and turning the ball over six times. Regardless, her teammates never stopped ensuring the ball was in her hands. Forbes, Padilla and Watkins combined for 63 of USC’s 73 points and had eight steals between them.

Speaking about her Ivy League transfers (which also include Columbia grad Kaitlyn Davis, who played nine minutes on Sunday), Gottlieb said, “They’re confident players. But they don’t care, which allows us to say, ‘OK, freshman, we’re going to put the ball in your hands’ and play off each other … That’s a huge part of our success. It’s [JuJu] being a star that’s so magnetic and positive, but also the other people being willing to see the big picture and look at what we’re accomplishing together.”

Splitting the series seemed only appropriate for these two top-10 teams, who both made their crowds proud with wins at home. With the leadership of players like Forbes and Osborne mentoring their young teammates, we’re all but promised exciting Los Angeles matchups for years to come.

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Written by Cameron Ruby

Cameron Ruby has been a contributing writer for The Next since April 2023. She is a Bay Area native currently living in Los Angeles.

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