Monday, July 15, 2024

JuJu Watkins scores 42 as USC tops Colorado for 7th straight win

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LOS ANGELES — The No. 12 has become synonymous around the Galen Center, spawning long lines at merchandise stands and parents clamoring for a jersey for their daughters and sons, USC’s home stands now packed with odes to JuJu Watkins.

No. 32, it appears, is just as good as No. 12.

A few minutes into the fourth quarter of a wild shootout with Colorado, with turnovers adding up and whistles shrieking nonstop, Watkins’ teammates mysteriously huddled around her on the bench. Seconds later, she emerged having shed her already-fabled No. 12, sporting a foreign “32” on her jersey – almost seeming too big for her, spilling out over her shorts the rest of the night. For three quarters, the freshman had scrapped incessantly for buckets, wiping away the memory of a 6-for-32 night the previous weekend at Oregon State with every pull-up jumper and charge to the rim.

And instantly out of the break, 12 becoming 32 in the final minutes of a truly inebriated basketball game, Watkins attacked. She drained a pull-up jumper to put USC ahead by double-digits, her shot in rhythm all night. She drove into Colorado’s star big Aaronette Vonleh, fouling her out, a few minutes after wearing down her primary defender in Jaylyn Sherrod and fouling her out. And after the final buzzer sounded in the seventh-ranked Trojans’ rough-and-tumble 87-81 victory over No. 11 Colorado, Watkins held her hands aloft to the crowd like Maximus to the Coliseum in “Gladiator.”

Forty-two points, 10-of-19 shooting, 18-of-18 from the free-throw line and a seventh consecutive win for USC (21-4 overall, 11-4 in Pac-12 play). It was Watkins’ 11th 30-point game of the year in a season that’s far from over, snapping a USC program record set by Cheryl Miller, who watched in glee from courtside seats at Galen Center.

It was also hardly her prettiest.

When USC lost to Washington in late January, it was Watkins’ approach to the week that followed – after an 8-for-27 shooting night – that stood out to Coach Lindsay Gottlieb. Watkins followed with a record-breaking 51-point performance against Stanford; “her demeanor,” Gottlieb said after that win, “is what sets her apart.”

She came out fearless against Colorado (20-6, 10-5), just a hair shy of reckless, absolutely no mind given to the fact that she’d just shot 6 for 32 against Oregon State. Some, perhaps, might look to facilitate the game following such a line; some coaches, perhaps, might look to make them a facilitator.

Not Watkins. And certainly not Gottlieb. The freshman came out hunting shots from the tip, nailing a 3-pointer within the first minute, taking six of USC’s first eight shots. She scrounged for matchups against the shorter Vonleh, backing her down in the post, bumping her relentlessly.

Her shot was in rhythm, dropping 22 points in the first half. But Watkins was hounded, battered and bruised, turning the ball over six times before the halftime break on her way to a 10-turnover night. In the third quarter, after a one-time 13-point lead fell into a deficit thanks to aggressive defense and sweet shooting by Colorado, whistles blew nonstop, Gottlieb announcing to the crowd at Galen postgame that the night felt like a heavyweight bout.

Watkins won. In mid-January, when Colorado knocked off USC in their first meeting, it was Sherrod who drew an offensive foul on Watkins to send the freshman to the bench prematurely with five fouls. On this night, with Sherrod again playing her tough, Watkins drew two fouls in the third quarter, the crowd cheering as Colorado coach JR Payne subbed Sherrod out with three fouls. When McKenzie Forbes drew another foul on Sherrod a few minutes later, the Colorado guard went straight to the tunnel after being pulled, clapping her hands in sheer frustration.

Forbes was electric herself, finishing with 24 points, five 3-pointers and seven assists, staring directly at Miller and pounding her chest – with Miller pounding hers back – after one second-quarter 3-pointer. Senior Kayla Padilla added four 3-pointers, and USC walked away with another win.

More to come on this story.

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