JuJu Watkins leads USC to exciting double-OT win over UCLA in Pac-12 tournament

USC guard JuJu Watkins drives on UCLA guard Camryn Brown during the first half Friday.
USC guard JuJu Watkins drives on UCLA guard Camryn Brown during the first half of the Trojans’ 80-70 double-overtime victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals Friday.
(Candice Ward / Getty Images)

With 11.2 seconds left, JuJu Watkins glanced over her shoulder and locked eyes with her mother and father sitting in the front row at MGM Grand Garden Arena. She smiled. Relieved.

When she ran straight toward India Otto at the buzzer, she shouted as the fifth-year guard wrapped her in a tight hug. Ecstatic. No signs of pain here.

The star freshman fought through an early ankle injury to finish with 33 points and 10 rebounds as second-seeded USC survived in double overtime against third-seeded rival UCLA 80-70 in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Friday. The Trojans will play No. 1 seed Stanford in the final Sunday at 2 p.m. on ESPN.


From being picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason poll to earning the program’s highest seed in the conference tournament, USC (25-5) is one win away from its first conference title since 2014. The rise to prominence has stunned even the generational talent at the center of it all.

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“I’m not going to lie,” Watkins said, giggling, “I did not think this would happen this soon. … I’m just blessed, honestly. Better than anything I could have hoped for, really.”

After losing nine straight to the Bruins, USC has won consecutive rivalry games, including a victory at Galen Center in January. The Trojans won for the first time against their crosstown rivals in the conference tournament after losing four postseason matchups to the Bruins.

Friday’s game might have been the most tense of them all. It felt like a Final Four matchup, USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. Although they were seeded behind the Trojans in the conference tournament, the Bruins (25-6) recently were projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament by ESPN.

“We always say that the tougher, more together team wins and they were a little bit tougher than us,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “And just being really candid, that’s always on me. It’s my responsibility to have my team be in position to be that and we weren’t.”

USC guard McKenzie Forbes, right, reacts after a shot-clock violation was called as UCLA forward Gabriela Jaquez.
USC guard McKenzie Forbes, right, and UCLA forward Gabriela Jaquez, left, react after a shot-clock violation was called on the Bruins during the first half of their Pac-12 tournament game Friday.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

UCLA center Lauren Betts had 17 points and 18 rebounds. Guard Charisma Osborne led the Bruins with 21 points, including 10 points in the second quarter that helped UCLA battle back from a 16-point first-quarter deficit.

USC finished the first quarter with 16 consecutive points, including 14 after Watkins returned from an ankle injury she sustained 48 seconds into the game. She aggravated it in the first minute of the first overtime and couldn’t put any weight on her left leg after collapsing under the basket. She was helped to the bench with her arms draped over the shoulders of two team staff members. One minute and 34 seconds of game time later, Watkins tightened her shoe laces and checked back into the game.

“I knew I had to get back in because I think my team needed me,” Watkins said. “But it’s just an ankle. Nothing I’m not used to. Feel great. Ready to play on Sunday.”

So, a reporter interjected, you’re ready for another overtime?

Watkins laughed. “That might be pushing it.”

It wasn’t anything new to Gottlieb, who recalled watching a 6:30 a.m. preseason practice at Sierra Canyon when the star player turned her ankle at the beginning of the session. She returned then too.

“This kid is not normal,” Gottlieb said.

UCLA had chances to win at the end of regulation and the first overtime, getting stops on defense, securing a rebound and calling timeout with 1.9 seconds remaining. Both times, the Bruins failed to get a shot off.

Close acknowledged that if given the opportunity, she probably would have changed the call on the first play that ended with Kiki Rice heaving a shot after the buzzer because the Bruins couldn’t create a clean catch off the inbound pass. At the end of overtime, Angela Dugalic inbounded the pass to Osborne, who drove to the baseline and passed it to a teammate as the buzzer sounded.

“That’s not the place where I thought we won or lost the game,” Close said. “Giving up defensive rebounds on free throws, we were up four, we control that.”


UCLA led by four with 57 seconds remaining in overtime when Watkins went to the free-throw line for two shots. She sank the first — one of her 14 made free throws on 17 attempts — but missed the second. Kaitlin Davis turned the possession into a four-point trip, collecting the offensive rebound and shoveling it to Kayla Padilla, who whipped a pass to McKenzie Forbes for the tying three-pointer with 50 seconds left.

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Uniting USC’s trio of Ivy League transfers, Gottlieb called the play “Ivy Special.” The maturity of USC’s graduate transfers who all starred at their former schools, combined with Watkins’ immense talent, has made the Trojans a dangerous team in clutch moments. USC has won 11 games with single-digit final score margins this season, more than any other Pac-12 team.

“We can get the win,” said Davis, who finished with 16 rebounds, “because we’ve done it before.”

USC players pointed four fingers down in celebration. The band’s gleaming silver sword found its way into Watkins’ hands. She raised it into the air as USC players paraded onto the Pac-12 Networks set and she placed USC’s red sticker on the oversized tournament bracket, putting the Trojans into the final against Stanford.

USC’s band and traveling student section chanted, “Ju-Ju! Ju-Ju!”