April 18, 2024
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, left, and guard JuJu Watkins celebrate after a win over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, left, and guard JuJu Watkins react after a win over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in November.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Two days before coaching against each other in the biggest game of the season, Gottlieb and UCLA coach Cori Close were recruiting side by side. They paused to celebrate a rare rivalry moment that both teams could celebrate as a victory.

“We want to look at this for years and go, ‘This is when Southern California basketball hit a major tipping point,’” Close said. “I think everybody wins in this scenario.”

While both programs celebrate the growth of the women’s game in L.A., where women’s college basketball has struggled to break through in a crowded market, Close admitted the balance between appreciating the massive opportunity and then staying focused enough to take advantage of it on the court is “delicate, honestly.”

“I have really been focusing on trying to eliminate as many distractions from their minds as possible,” Close said. “I just want our players to focus on the consistency of what it takes to be their very best. What’s the best version of themselves, what’s the game plan and take care of what’s between the lines.”

Players are on winter break and free from academic stresses, but distractions still encroach. National media opportunities increase. Players’ friends and family are asking for tickets and wondering where to park on campus, expecting a logistical nightmare of more than 10,000 fans.

Sophomore guard Londynn Jones said she was able to secure just 12 tickets for her family. Everyone else hoping to watch the Riverside native had to hunt on their own. But the sharpshooting guard averaging 13.4 points is still expecting a large contingent of familiar faces.

“Being a Cali girl, this is something a little girl dreams of,” Jones said.

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