USC stuns top-seeded Stanford to win women’s Pac-12 tournament title

USC's McKenzie Forbes celebrates as she cuts a piece of a net after the Trojans' victory over top-seeded Stanford.
USC’s McKenzie Forbes celebrates after cutting a piece of net following the Trojans’ victory over top-seeded Stanford in the women’s Pac-12 tournament championship game Sunday.
(Candice Ward / Getty Images)

McKenzie Forbes threw the ball with two hands backward over her head. Tears marked Rayah Marshall’s cheeks as she threw a T-shirt into the crowd. JuJu Watkins shared a bear hug with Tommy Trojan.

These are the final queens of the Pac-12.

USC won its first Pac-12 championship since 2014, knocking off top-seeded Stanford 74-61 on Sunday at MGM Grand Garden Arena in the last conference tournament. Led by Forbes’ 26 points, the Trojans flexed their depth on a rare off game for Watkins, who was held to a season-low nine points.

USC will play for the Pac-12 tournament title Sunday, and the Trojans are putting together a special season even if they were mostly snubbed at awards time.

March 9, 2024

“This is the best day ever because this group I really love and admire so much got to celebrate,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “You don’t always get that, everyone gets the work in, everyone tries to do their best job but to see the confetti falling and to see them have success at this level, it is beyond words, it is beyond belief.”


Standing in the shower of red and yellow confetti, Forbes, who was selected the tournament most outstanding player, whispered to Gottlieb, “Am I dreaming, bro?”

“It’s truly unbelievable,” Forbes said.

The Harvard transfer made 11 of 21 shots from the field, carrying the scoring load as Watkins, battling a sprained ankle suffered Friday, faced a defensive game plan that Gottlieb admitted she had never seen. Marshall (10 points, 18 rebounds) and Kaitlyn Davis (seven rebounds) led USC’s tough effort on the boards, where the Trojans outrebounded Stanford, led by Pac-12 player of the year Cameron Brink, 48-28. Kayla Padilla and Kayla Williams, former teammates at Bishop Montgomery High who reunited at USC with hopes of winning a championship together, combined to make five of nine three-pointers.

The overwhelming team effort made the fact that Watkins remained four points away from tying Cheryl Miller’s USC single-season scoring record a minor footnote.

“This entire team has embraced [Watkins] so much,” Gottlieb said. “My vision, the dream is that you gotta figure it out, you gotta pick your poison. ... We don’t win a championship today without being able to rely on everything that is truly our team.”

One by one, players and coaches scaled a ladder to cut a strand of the net. Gottlieb made the final cuts, twirling the white nylon above her head before clenching her fist. Gottlieb’s son Jordan shot baskets on the bare orange rim with the net around his neck.

Clarice Akunwafo, who played stout defense against Brink and All-Pac-12 selection Kiki Iriafen, did the honor of advancing USC to the championship line on the tournament bracket poster. She held USC’s red sticker aloft, soaking in the cheers from USC’s assembled band members.


After losing 14 straight games to Stanford, the longtime ruler of Pac-12 women’s basketball, the Trojans have won three of the last four against the Cardinal. USCwon multiple games against Stanford in the same season for the first time since 1986-87.

USC, which took a nine-point lead at halftime, didn’t give the 15-time conference champion any opportunity to come back. The Cardinal didn’t get within eight points in the second half. Aware that Stanford came back from a 16-point deficit against Oregon State in the semifinals, Gottlieb implored her team to “not get off the treadmill.”

USC's India Otto hugs Aaliyah Gayles, left, while teammates McKenzie Forbes, JuJu Watkins and Rayah Marshall celebrate.
USC’s India Otto hugs Aaliyah Gayles, left, while teammates (from left) McKenzie Forbes, JuJu Watkins and Rayah Marshall celebrate after the Trojans’ win over Stanford in the women’s Pac-12 tournament championship game Sunday.
(Ian Maule / Associated Press)

USC players celebrate after defeating Stanford in the women's Pac-12 championship game on Sunday.
(Candice Ward / Getty Images)

With less than a minute left, guard India Otto, who turned 23 on Sunday, kept her hands clasped over her mouth to try to contain her excitement. But when Watkins ran out in transition for a layup after a Stanford turnover, putting the Trojans up by 11 with 35 seconds left, Otto burst off the bench.


Standing on stage during the trophy presentation, the fifth-year guard, the only player on USC’s roster that predated Gottlieb’s three-year tenure, slapped a sticker of USC’s logo on an oversized ticket as USC clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

These Trojans are not done.