February 28, 2024

With the King in attendance, USC’s newest basketball queen reigned.

JuJu Watkins led No. 6 USC to an 85-53 rout over UC Riverside at Galen Center on Sunday as the star freshman’s stellar debut season continued with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting with five assists and five steals. She was three points short of breaking Cheryl Miller’s USC record for consecutive 30-point games, which stands at three.

Junior forward Rayah Marshall had an 11-point, 12-rebound double-double with three blocks.

USC guard Malia Samuels puts up a shot during a win over UC Riverside on Sunday.

USC guard Malia Samuels puts up a shot during a win over UC Riverside on Sunday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Trojans (8-0) capitalized on the energy of a doubleheader with the USC men’s team Sunday that featured Bronny James’ debut. Lakers star LeBron James, in attendance to watch his son play 16 minutes in USC’s overtime loss to Long Beach State, remained in his courtside seat as Watkins led her team onto the court.

The freshman gave the NBA champion something to cheer. She paced the Trojans to a 32-point lead at halftime before James walked across the court and exited through the USC tunnel.

There wasn’t much else for him to see as Watkins had five made field goals, just one fewer than Riverside (4-4) had as a team.

USC forward Kaitlyn Davis controls the ball against UC Riverside on Sunday.

USC forward Kaitlyn Davis controls the ball against UC Riverside on Sunday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Led by two L.A. natives, the Trojans have their highest ranking in the Associated Press poll since 1994 and drew their second crowd of 4,000 this season, signaling a shifting tide for the long dormant program.

“I get chills thinking about what my vision was in coming here,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Obviously I never envisioned exactly like all the characters and things that were at play today, but you envision doing something special. … Really to have a large portion of that crowd that maybe has never seen us play, we are changing a culture here.”

Gottlieb credited her players for giving fans a reason to come back. The chief draw is probably a chance to watch Watkins.

Already the four-time Pac-12 freshman of the week — winning the award all four weeks of the young season — Watkins added the conference’s top player honor last week. She ranks second nationally in scoring with 27.3 points per game, trailing only Iowa star Caitlin Clark. She’s the USC record holder for 30-point games as a freshman with five in just eight games and entered with three straight. Miller’s record of consecutive 30-point performance probably will belong to Watkins soon.

But the star guard’s impact wasn’t just on the offensive end Sunday. She came one steal short of her career best and had two blocks. She entered the game with 16 steals, twice as many as her teammate Marshall’s eight.

Marshall was the first call Gottlieb made when she was hired in 2021. The coach wanted to make sure the 6-foot-4 forward from Lynwood High was going to stay committed to the Trojans amid the coaching change. The McDonald’s All-American is only beginning to reap the rewards of her loyalty to her hometown.

“It’s an honor to be here and just watch how she’s really turned this program around in the matter of three years,” Marshall said. “The talent we’re bringing in. I feel like the sky’s really the limit. We’re really just getting started.”

After Sunday’s game, Watkins lingered near the stands. She snapped selfies with fans. She signed autographs. The Trojans could get used to this sight.

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