March 9, 2024 

The legend of JuJu Watkins grows after Pac-12 Tournament semifinal win over UCLA

But Watkins also had critical help in critical moments

LAS VEGAS — The legend of JuJu Watkins grew on Friday night in Las Vegas. USC’s game-changing freshman guard brought the show to a new city and to new heights. She left the court twice with a sprained ankle — once in overtime — but returned both times to help lead her team to an epic 80-70 double-overtime win over rival UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.

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The Trojans advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament title game for the first time since 2014. They’ll face 15-time champion Stanford on Sunday at 2 p.m. PT.

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Watkins’ role and the attention she has received this season are never understated. And they won’t be after this game, either. She finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds. In her 13th 30-point game this season, she broke the Pac-12 Tournament record for points in a game by a freshman.

But not unlike Stanford’s come-from-behind win over Oregon State in the first semifinal, in which complementary players paved the path to the win, Watkins had critical help at critical moments.

“This is a team win and it is an epic one,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb told reporters afterward. “We know we are not done. We have the privilege to play on Sunday.”

Fifth-year senior guard McKenzie Forbes — one of three graduate transfers from Ivy League schools on the USC roster — finished with 17 points and the game-tying 3-pointer with 50 seconds left in the first overtime.

Forward and fellow Ivy grad Kaitlyn Davis pitched in with eight points, three steals and a season-high 16 rebounds. The third member of the trio, guard Kayla Padilla, added nine points, four rebounds and three assists.

In addition, Trojans forward Rayah Marshall contributed 11 rebounds and seven points, despite a rough shooting night.

USC cannot thrive on Watkins alone.

Gottlieb brought Davis to the postgame press conference and took the opportunity to rave about the transfer from Columbia.

“KD chose to go to Columbia. She could have gone anywhere, and she, along with her teammates, changed that program. They’re a winning program now,” Gottlieb said. “She came to us with student loans. I mean, they pay their way in the Ivy. … And to come here and do what she’s doing on this level is unbelievable.”

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Watkins left the game twice, once in each half. The second time was more worrisome, with the guard coming down on UCLA center Lauren Betts’ foot after contesting a shot and rolling the ankle she’d already injured during the game. She writhed in obvious pain.

With 3:36 remaining in the first overtime and the score tied at 61, Watkins was carried off the court. At 2:22, she was back in the game. On a weekend when she has literally been bruised and bloodied, what choice was there? Oh, and she was playing with four fouls for half of the fourth quarter and all of the overtime periods.

“Even when I went out, I knew I had to get back in because I think my team needed me,” Watkins said. “But it’s just an ankle. Nothing I’m not used to. [I] feel great. Ready to play on Sunday.”

Related reading: Guards galore: The best candidates for Pac-12 All-Freshman team

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On Sunday, the Trojans will meet Stanford for the first time since Watkins’ 51-point performance at Maples Pavilion earned USC a signature win on Feb. 2.

A spot in the Pac-12 Tournament final is probably more than even the legendary JuJu Watkins could have dreamed up for her freshman year.

“I’m not going to lie: I did not think this would happen this soon. But I guess timing is everything, and I’m glad that we’re here,” she said. “This group — it means everything. And I’m just blessed, honestly. But, yeah, better than anything I ever could have hoped for, really.”

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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