January 1, 2024
Sights and sounds from UCLA and USC’s Tinseltown tussle
Close: 'This was the hottest ticket in any sport'
LOS ANGELES — There’s something special about a crosstown rivalry. That magic is amplified when the showdown features two of the top six teams nationally — UCLA and USC — and several of the most electric players in the country, including hometown star Juju Watkins in her Pac-12 debut.
The seats were near full far before the opening tip, a rare occurrence for a Los Angeles sporting event. As the Bruins took the court, the home crowd erupted in cheers to a visual of a bear holding tattered USC gear in its mouth. An equally loud cheer was elicited by the announcement of Watkins, playing for the previously-undefeated Trojans.
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Ultimately, the crowd’s energy and a defensive focus propelled No. 2 UCLA over No. 6 USC, 71-64. The Bruins controlled the pace from the jump, with five steals in the first quarter. They disrupted USC’s flow immediately, with decorated defender Charisma Osbourne playing complete denial defense on Watkins, resulting in two early deflections resulting in buckets. The crowd celebrated defensive stops with exuberance, relishing in the pushed pace and tenacity. USC did not convert on a field goal until more than 8 minutes into the first quarter.
Among the 13,659 in attendance were about fifty UCLA women’s basketball alumni honored at halftime, as well as men’s alumni Russell Westbrook and Baron Davis. Numerous WNBA scouts, including Sparks head coach Curt Miller and Seattle assistant Ebony Hoffman were also in attendance.
The game maintained its intensity, with UCLA coach Cori Close motioning for players to pressure whoever was bringing the ball up, subbing players out when they didn’t provide the appropriate pressure. With a one point difference at halftime, both sides received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The second half remained physical and loud, with Watkins fighting UCLA’s 6’7 Lauren Betts for boards. With 4:08 remaining, UCLA sophomore Londynn Jones hit her fifth three of the game, putting UCLA up 68-61, and seemingly taking the final air out of USC’s sails. She finished with a team high 21, with teammates Lauren Betts (15), Kiki Rice (12), and Charisma Osborne (10) also scoring in double figures.
Watkins finished with a game-high 27 points, displaying poise in the face of three early fouls, and adjusting amid the stifling defense of Osbourne. Gottlieb credited her success to her ability to adjust in real time, and getting to the line when the shots weren’t falling. Watkins and senior transfer McKenzie Forbes combined for 50 points, nearly 80% of the Trojans’ scoring, heavily contrasting the balanced attack of the Bruins. Only eight total bench points were scored in the game.
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb noted that while her team hates losing, she’s not discouraged by this loss, and is excited to continue what promises to be a challenging final season in the Pac-12.
“The character factor for us was really high,” she said. “We’re going to look back at this film and see so many things we can do better, which is really a positive thing.”
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There was a sense of hope emanating throughout Pauley Pavillion, that this may be a turning point for women’s basketball in Southern California. Last year, UCLA drew 2,861 fans per home game on average, while USC averaged only 1,037. Both coaches voiced their appreciation for their support and marketing teams in elevating the hype around the rivalry game. UCLA added giveaways for students (including giving one contest runner up the same $1,000 cash prize as the winners, eliciting a massive cheer from the crowd and tears from the winner), additional t-shirt tosses, and food trucks around the concourse to supplement the in-arena concessions.
After the game, Coach Close said, “This was the hottest ticket in any sport, male or female today, in Southern California, and that’s saying something. We’ve worked really hard to get to that point. Credit to USC as well as to us who made this happen. Both teams are really young and are going to be good for a really long time. This is going to be a fun thing to build and follow.”
Gottlieb gave some credit for the hype to Los Angeles native Watkins, who is averaging 26.8 points per game. “You can’t talk about it without mentioning the type of draw that JuJu is and her ability to stay home and bring people, and our team being an exciting team to watch, and the success that UCLA has had.” She added, “We really appreciate what this does for women’s basketball.”
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While Close noted that she’s disappointed that this wasn’t televised nationally, she encouraged her team to only focus on what they could control.
“The reality is that if you weren’t here and you didn’t find a way to watch it, then you missed out. Maybe do something about it. Be with us next time.”
USC and UCLA will go head-to-head again on January 14 at the Galen Center.