April 13, 2024

USC needed a basket. Of course, clinging to a four-point lead in double overtime against UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, JuJu Watkins would have the ball in her hands.

She surveyed the defense from just inside midcourt, drove to her left and drew a double team in the paint. Then she threaded a pass through the double team. It was Rayah Marshall who scored the key bucket that sent USC to its first Pac-12 title game since 2014.

While USC’s star freshman has delivered on every expectation in her sensational season leading her hometown team back to national prominence, the Trojans are proving they run on more than Watkins’ iconic bun.

Clutch contributions from her teammates have second-seeded USC playing for their first conference tournament title in a decade, facing top-seeded Stanford in the Pac-12 final at 2 p.m. Sunday in MGM Grand Garden Arena.

“We’re an entire team,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said before the tournament. “She is phenomenal, people have game-planned against [her], but finishing second in this tough league and going through the gauntlet that we have takes everyone.”

Gottlieb said the Trojans feel they have “something to prove” after mostly getting snubbed in the conference awards. While Watkins was named Pac-12 freshman of the year, the league coaches had guard McKenzie Forbes as the only other USC player on their 15-player All-Pac-12 team. Watkins and Marshall were named honorable mention all-defense.

Watkins was the only player to receive all-conference honors in the media poll released Wednesday. She was voted freshman of the year, made the All-Pac-12 team and was selected to the five-player all-defensive team. Yet if Watkins was the only USC player to earn any acclaim on a team that finished second in the conference, how could she not be the player of the year, Gottlieb questioned.

Stanford’s Cameron Brink, who ranks fourth in the league in scoring (17.9) and second in rebounding (12), was named Pac-12 player of the year by both coaches and media.

“We’re obviously proud of the 23-5 [regular-season record] and having the second seed but we also know that’s done now,” Gottlieb said this week. “There’s a bigger stage in front of us.”

The Pac-12 title game will be on ESPN, only USC’s third nationally televised game this season outside of Pac-12 Networks. The first was Watkins’ college debut, a coming out party against Ohio State in which she scored 32 points to upset the Buckeyes.

But the Trojans already were showing signs of being too reliant on Watkins. They built a 19-point lead during the third quarter. Then Watkins got in foul trouble. USC lost the lead in less than five minutes.

Four months later, in the final weekend of the regular season, the Trojans won in double overtime against Arizona despite losing Watkins to five fouls in regulation. Marshall had 26 points and 11 rebounds. The junior from Lynwood delivered again in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals with 15 points and 15 rebounds as Arizona held Watkins to a modest 17 points, which tied her scoring low during conference play. Against the Wildcats, Marshall capped USC’s 6-0 run in the second overtime with her layup off Watkins’ assist. Forbes sank the tying shot that forced the second extra period.

USC center Rayah Marshall (No. 13) shoots over Arizona forward Isis Beh during a Pac-12 tournament game Thursday.

USC center Rayah Marshall (No. 13) shoots over Arizona forward Isis Beh during the second half of a quarterfinal game in the Pac-12 tournament Thursday in Las Vegas.

(Ian Maule / Associated Press)

Seeing her teammates fight only made Watkins more confident that she could return from a sprained ankle suffered in the first minute against UCLA.

“Having so many great people around me, always trusting in me, believing in me, it makes me who I am,” said Watkins, who expects to be ready to play in Sunday’s final. “I’m just grateful to be part of this team.”

Watkins picked up her fourth foul with 5:17 remaining in the fourth quarter but didn’t leave the game. Associate head coach Beth Burns told the players in the huddle that after Watkins had their back, it was their time to have hers. They understood the assignment.

“The maturity of the rest of our players make it work,” Gottlieb said. “We want this season to continue on for as long as possible because it feels special.”

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