USC women prove they're more than JuJu Watkins: 'We're an entire team'

Southern California guard McKenzie Forbes (25) and teammates celebrate an overtime win against UCLA in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Pac-12 women's tournament Friday, March 8, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
USC guard McKenzie Forbes celebrates with teammates after an overtime win against UCLA in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Friday in Las Vegas. (David Becker / Associated Press)

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’ beloved bun.

Clutch contributions from teammates have second-seeded USC playing for its 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.

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

“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.”

While Watkins has led USC in scoring in both Pac-12 tournament games, Marshall’s 15-point, 15-rebound double-double against Arizona in the quarterfinals and McKenzie Forbes’ 17 points against UCLA were just as critical. Forbes sank the tying three-pointer to force double overtime against the Bruins. Kaitlyn Davis scrapped for a season-high 16 rebounds in a gritty performance that Gottlieb said deserves just as much recognition as Watkins' 33-point effort on a sprained ankle.

Seeing her teammates fight only made Watkins more confident that she could return from the injury 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.”

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)

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 Forbes as the only other Trojan 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.”

Read more: Bloodied and bruised, JuJu Watkins leads USC past Arizona in Pac-12 tournament

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, Marshall finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds in a double-overtime win against Arizona after Watkins fouled out at the end of regulation. On Friday, Watkins needed her teammates again after picking up her fourth foul with 5:17 remaining. She didn’t leave the game, but associate head coach Beth Burns told the players in the huddle that they needed to protect the 18-year-old against a fifth. Watkins had their back, Burns said, 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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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.