June 21, 2024

USC players stood backstage waiting for their cue. The Trojans hadn’t even been introduced at HoopLA, their midnight madness-like event tipping off the basketball season, and Lindsay Gottlieb’s assistant advised the third-year coach to peek at the scene. She poked her head out from behind the curtain.

Light sticks illuminated the dark arena. Thousands of people in the stands were cheering. In October. Gottlieb sensed the significance of the moment.

“I really do believe this is the start of a different era and perception of USC women’s basketball,” she said.

Building off their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014 and the excitement surrounding one of the most significant prospects in program history, the 21st-ranked Trojans hope to usher in a new era of success on and off the court. When Gottlieb took over in 2021, the hire was hailed as a new age for the program trying to return to the glory once defined by stars like Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson.

Now the Trojans are in their JuJu era.

JuJu Watkins could be the next face of women’s basketball, following current standouts Angel Reese of Louisiana State, Caitlin Clark of Iowa and Paige Bueckers of Connecticut. Watkins, who led Sierra Canyon to a Southern Section Open Division title and state title, is just the second Gatorade national girls’ basketball player of the year to choose USC. The other was Leslie. The 18-year-old Watkins already has practiced with NBA players, signed endorsement deals with Nike and appeared in TV commercials.

Even amid unprecedented hype, Watkins is “better than advertised,” Gottlieb said.

The 6-foot-2 guard has strength and physicality well beyond her years. Her body control is on par with her older peers. Her instincts are “terrific,” Gottlieb said.

An offseason half-court drill during which Watkins was teamed with forwards Rayah Marshall and Taylor Bigby still sticks in Marshall’s mind. Watkins scored effortlessly on three consecutive possessions. Even when she closed her eyes and turned toward the basket, the ball still went in, Marshall marveled.

India Otto embraces JuJu Watkins, right, after the three point contest during the Trojan HoopLA event on Oct. 19.

India Otto embraces JuJu Watkins, right, after the three point contest during the Trojan HoopLA event on Oct. 19.

(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

“She’ll come out and drop 20 on your top and then in your grill trying to stop you from scoring,” said Marshall, who was named All-Pac-12 last year as a sophomore. “She has such an IQ for the game and such a hunger to compete on both ends of the ball and it’s fun to play with. It makes me want to be more of a dog, it makes me want to go out there, block shots for her, rebound, see her do it again and again.”

Gottlieb recognizes that much of the excitement around the program likely comes from Watkins’ choice to sign with her hometown team over powers Stanford and South Carolina. USC never has had a star of Watkins’ magnitude in this social media era.

But on the practice court, Watkins blends in with her teammates. Despite every highlight play the freshman has made, the thing Marshall is most impressed with is how Watkins “never lets the moment, eyes being on her, really affect her mental going into her game.”

“The team goal is the most important,” Watkins said. “So I just remind myself that this is a team game and just do whatever I can to contribute to the team. As long as we get that W, that’s all that matters.”

Watkins joins fellow freshman Malia Samuels and four transfers who will help the Trojans replace three starters. Gottlieb pulled forwards Kaitlin Davis (Columbia) and McKenzie Forbes (Harvard) and guard Kayla Padilla (Pennsylvania) from the Ivy League while adding guard Roxana Makolo from Texas Christian.

Even with new players, USC’s standard for winning remains the same, Gottlieb said. The Trojans paved their way to the postseason with defense last season, setting a school record by holding teams to 55.1 points per game. Guard Kayla Williams set the tone at the top of the defense with her relentless on-ball pressure, while Marshall patrolled the paint. She passed Leslie for most blocks in a season with 98, including seven in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

USC guard JuJu Watkins holds a basketball and looks across the court during Trojan HoopLA event on Oct. 19

USC guard JuJu Watkins holds a basketball and looks across the court during Trojan HoopLA event on Oct. 19 at the Galen Center.

(Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But Marshall didn’t get another game to increase her record after USC was eliminated in overtime by South Dakota State.

“Leaving in the first round left a chip on my shoulder,” Marshall said. “I’m glad I actually got to experience that early because now I’m capable of knowing what it takes to get to that level and how to dominate. … I can have that hunger and eager to succeed and go further in the NCAA tournament.”

USC hasn’t been to consecutive NCAA tournaments since 2005-06 and hasn’t won a game in it since 2006. After ending the postseason drought, the next era is about helping the Trojans become a national power, Gottlieb said unabashedly.

The coach who helped California to its first Final Four in 2013 tells young players that in a few years, she wants USC to draw the same reactions as powerhouses like Connecticut or South Carolina. Seeing the fans embracing the program after just one tournament appearance has Gottlieb believing in the ambitious vision.

“We think we can be one of those women’s basketball programs that people look to as the pinnacle,” Gottlieb said. “It takes work, but that’s where we want to get to. We don’t want it to be a year thing or one cool preseason. We want to really build something of significance.”

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