‘She’s different’: Inside USC star JuJu Watkins’ epic 51-point night

LOS ANGELES — Early on Monday, USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb texted JuJu Watkins, setting a time to go over a particularly ugly batch of film with her freshman prodigy.

USC had just suffered its worst loss of the season against Washington on Sunday, relative to expectation, a game in which the slumping Watkins had shot 8 for 27. Gottlieb, the three-year architect of USC’s rebuild and former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant, is not one to play games or mince words; she wanted to catch Watkins before their team-wide film session Monday. Except Watkins had rehab. So there was no chance to brace her for tape that wouldn’t be pretty, for words that might not be pretty, Watkins in the midst of a 5-for-31 stretch from 3-point range.

And that day, Gottlieb moved film before their lift. Before their practice. We need to watch it, she told the group, assembled. It needs to be painful. And then we need to move on.

In that moment, Gottlieb looked at Watkins. The freshman didn’t drop her gaze. Watkins looked right back. Direct eye contact. They shared a moment, the faces of the resurgence of women’s basketball at USC, a kind of unspoken acknowledgement shared between an 18-year-old and a veteran coach: I got you.

“The ‘I’m with you’ – for a young player, it sets the tone for the team,” Gottlieb recalled Saturday afternoon. “And from that moment, I was like, ‘We’re gonna be good.’”

She couldn’t have possibly predicted just how good.

Friday night at Stanford was the moment Watkins truly wrangled the basketball world by the neck and didn’t let go, the teenager who’s picked up an entire program’s legacy and placed it on her shoulders, buzz exploding as she wheeled her way to one of the better regular-season performances in collegiate women’s basketball history.

After a dizzying array of midrange triple-threats and transition pull-up 3-pointers in the No. 15 Trojans’ momentous upset of No. 4 Stanford, two late free throws in front of a raucous USC bench gave Watkins a stunning 51 points on the night, breaking the program record. She stands alone, already, an 18-year-old at the top of a list that includes Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie and some of the most recognizable names in basketball history.

Watkins had 40 points after three quarters, blowing past her season-high of 35 and eclipsing Miller’s freshman record of 39 points. By the end, Watkins broke the USC scoring record of 50 points set by Cherie Nelson on March 11, 1989.

It was a performance, as Gottlieb reflected to the Southern California News Group a day later, that would’ve been otherworldly no matter what. But made altogether more significant, to her, because of the way Watkins attacked adversity when it had finally reared its head, the kind of response that provokes legend for generations.

“To see her come out and respond this way is – I think it is going to go into the storybook of JuJu,” Gottlieb said, the awe still resonating in her vocal inflections a day later.

Postgame on Saturday, after an impromptu locker-room mosh-pit with her teammates in celebration, Watkins testified with a weary smile she had 24-hour access to USC’s gym.

“I haven’t been able to sleep for these past couple weeks – well, past week, coming off some losses,” Watkins said.

The very night of the loss to Washington, Gottlieb chimed in, she got a call from a security guard at USC’s Galen Center, notifying her that Watkins was still in the gym.

Want me to tell her no? Gottlieb recalled hearing.

Let Ju be Ju, Gottlieb responded.

It’s the mentality that’s underwritten every facet of this scintillating USC season. When top recruit Watkins unveiled her commitment live on ESPN on Nov. 15, 2022, in front of a packed crowd of family sporting Watkins-themed T-shirts, she could’ve easily announced she was headed to Stanford – a more established program in Watkins’ final three choices. Instead, she chose USC, a school that hadn’t advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2006. She chose home. And she chose Gottlieb.

“It is never lost on me,” Gottlieb said Saturday. “Like, it is never not something that I think about, because I do think she’s different. She had a courage that I don’t think many people would have had. She had a belief in herself, and us, and in L.A. and USC.”

So Gottlieb has trusted in her, the same as Watkins has trusted in Gottlieb. And that’s meant – as Gottlieb has repeated multiple times – giving her freedom. Not stifling JuJu being JuJu. It was written in every shot Watkins dropped Saturday, scoring a near-unfathomable 51 of USC’s 67.

The night started innocently enough, USC down 18-11 early to Stanford, Watkins making a visible effort to try and involve teammates. At the end of the first quarter, though, she hit an in-and-out dribble into a pull-up three – and went on a 10-0 run by herself.

“I think at halftime, when I looked up, I was like, ‘Damn, I have 25 points,’” Watkins said postgame, beaming. “‘I could get, like, 50.’”

Gottlieb has a constant, unshakeable faith in Watkins to make the right play. And the right play, sometimes, means trusting Watkins to grab a rebound in transition and simply create magic – and at the start of the second half, the broadcast showed Gottlieb at the scorer’s table with her back turned to the court, oblivious as Watkins dribbled down not a few feet away from her and swished a pull-up triple.

After struggles with efficiency in the Pac-12, Watkins finished 14 of 26 (53.8%) from the floor, 6 of 11 (54.5%) from three and 17 of 19 (89.5%) from the free-throw line, along with 11 rebounds. When she went to the line with 19 seconds left, USC up nine, Gottlieb leaned over to assistant Courtney Jaco and put her hand over her mouth.

How many does she have? Gottlieb asked.

I think this is for 50, Jaco replied.

“And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Gottlieb remembered.

Watkins dropped in two free throws, her teammates jumping and screaming in sheer elation on the bench, the name JuJu Watkins already etched forever above some of the greatest to ever do it.

“What she’s doing for our program transcends just the stats and numbers,” Gottlieb said Saturday. “I think it’s really significant in women’s basketball, and in sport.”

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