April 18, 2024

Hours after the final whistle at Galen Center, fans were still lined up outside the arena doors. Kayla Padilla and Kayla Williams, even after a hard-fought loss to Utah on senior day, greeted the crowd with smiles. The USC guards eagerly signed autographs. They posed for selfies. This season, the former teammates at Torrance Bishop Montgomery High have played in front of sold-out crowds and helped lift the Trojans to their best season in their lifetimes.

Watching it all unfold is “a coach’s dream” to Noelle Quinn.

The former Bishop Montgomery coach never questioned the guards would advance to the Division I level, but what she wanted most was that once her players got there, they would leave an impact. As crowds fill Galen Center and the Trojans march into the national spotlight again, the Seattle Storm head coach can’t help but be in awe of a mission accomplished.

But the UCLA Hall of Famer in her also refuses to root for the team at the center of attention.

“I’m rooting for the Kaylas,” Quinn said. “… I am forever a Bruin. I will never, ever commit to rooting for the Trojans.”

Quinn’s favorite players will take lessons from their former coach into the Pac-12 tournament where they could clash with her favorite team. The second-seeded Trojans and No. 3 seed Bruins are on a collision course for a Pac-12 semifinal rubber match of a regular-season series that already sold out both teams’ home arenas.

USC will first face No. 10-seed Washington or No. 7 Arizona on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the quarterfinals at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. UCLA plays No. 6 Utah or No. 11 Arizona State on Thursday at 8:30.

The Bruins (24-5, 13-5 Pac-12) are trying to win their first conference title since Quinn, the program’s eighth-leading scorer, led them to the Pac-10 tournament championship in 2006. UCLA split the season series against Utah, losing in overtime in Salt Lake City, but hammering the Utes by 30 points in Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 22. The victory contributed to a five-game winning streak to finish the regular season that lifted UCLA to seventh in the country in this week’s Associated Press poll.

The Trojans (23-5, 13-5) secured their highest-ever seeding in the conference tournament after finishing the season with a road sweep of Arizona and Arizona State. USC, ranked fifth in the country, survived the Wildcats in double overtime after storming back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit with 5:59 remaining.

With star freshman JuJu Watkins fouling out at the end of regulation, Williams, a 5-foot-7 defensive spark plug who is working back from offseason surgery, played a season-high 26 minutes. Padilla scored 15 points. The sharp-shooting Penn transfer hit a clutch three-point shot that forced overtime and broke the game’s 17th and final tie in double overtime.

“That,” Padilla said, “felt like vintage Bishop Montgomery.”

The dynamic backcourt helped the Knights to back-to-back Del Rey titles and a 45-17 record in two seasons after Williams transferred to Bishop Montgomery from Pacific Palisades. Williams is an athletic point guard who looks to attack downhill. Her game is a perfect complement to Padilla, who graduated as Bishop Montgomery’s third-leading scorer with 1,907 points. The four-time all-league guard led Bishop Montgomery to the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship in 2017 — Quinn’s first year as her alma mater’s head coach — but the Kaylas never won a title together in high school.

Williams hasn’t forgotten about it.

“Coming back, it’s like, we’re older now, let’s try to do it,” Williams said. “Let’s try to get one in college.”

USC is vying for its first conference tournament title since 2014. Watkins, who was named Pac-12 freshman of the year by league coaches on Tuesday, has dominated headlines and stat sheets with a team-leading 27.8 points and is on pace to set USC’s single-season scoring record. But the Trojans didn’t finish second in the deepest conference in the country without savvy play from their veterans.

Padilla, a three-time first-team All-Ivy League selection at Penn, is shooting a sizzling 50% from three-point range (37-for-74) during conference games. Her 45.7% three-point shooting clip for the season is on pace to rank second in program history for players who attempted at least 40 shots.

While Padilla provides the offensive spark, Williams is USC’s defensive catalyst. After being the Big West freshman of the year for UC Irvine during the 2020-21 season, Williams was named Pac-12 all-defensive honorable mention last year when the Trojans used the program’s stingiest scoring defense in history to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.

USC guard Kayla Williams takes her stance during a game against UCLA in 2022.

USC guard Kayla Williams takes her stance during a game against UCLA in 2022.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Hampered by a stress fracture in her shin that required a metal rod being inserted into her lower leg, Williams is only averaging 10.7 minutes per game, but makes the most out of her opportunities by changing the pace on defense with an aggressive press.

“I’m confident that I can be a contributor,” Williams said, “but at times when I’m not, I’m going to be the best cheerleader for my teammates.”

Williams’ resilience during her recovery doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates, Padilla said. The Trojans value her for her veteran presence and grit in the classroom, where the transfer process from UC Irvine to USC forced her to take three classes each of the past two summers to graduate on time. She got five A’s and one A-minus.

During the most difficult times, Williams’ old high school coach has been quick to offer advice.

“She’s built for it,” Quinn said. “I hope she knows that I’m proud of how resilient she’s been.”

Williams saw Quinn’s own tenacity on display at Bishop Montgomery. While still playing for the Storm, where she capped her 12-year pro career with a WNBA title in 2018, Quinn began coaching her alma mater and jumping into drills with her high school players. She continued spending her summers in the WNBA as an assistant and flying south for the winter to coach at Bishop Montgomery until taking the Storm head coaching job in 2021. The coach’s nonstop work ethic was inspiring, Williams said.

The feeling was mutual for Quinn.

“I busted my butt for them because I knew that one day, they were going to be playing at a high level,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I gave them every ounce of me and gave them the tools and also gave them the advice needed.”

Noelle Quinn coached Bishop Montgomery during her WNBA offseasons before becoming the coach of the Seattle Storm in 2021.

Noelle Quinn coached Bishop Montgomery during her WNBA offseasons as a player before becoming the head coach of the Seattle Storm in 2021.

(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

To Padilla, the most valuable piece of advice came off the court. The reason she asked to wear Quinn’s No. 45 jersey in college isn’t because of her former coach’s extensive athletic resume, but instead Quinn’s impact outside of basketball.

“What we do is so much bigger than what we do in the 94 feet of the basketball floor,” Padilla said. “I think she continued to hone that in with us even as high schoolers who maybe didn’t realize what a bigger impact we could have. I think she just taught us the importance of what it means to not just be a good basketball player, but to be a good human being.”

Attendance has more than tripled at home for the Trojans, in large part because of Watkins’ arrival. Hometown products like Watkins, Padilla and Williams are at the heart of USC’s resurgence that has re-engaged the community and alumni in ways that haven’t been seen at Galen Center in years.

Count Quinn among those who have flocked to the arena, even if she’s keeping her bias quiet.

“When she comes to games, she gotta cheer for this side,” Williams said. “I know she’s a Bruin at heart, but she knows what it is when she comes over here.”

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