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    JuJu Watkins, McKenzie Forbes lead USC past Washington State
    • January 27, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — The formula was exceedingly simple, and executed to perfection, because good things happen around USC anytime JuJu Watkins has the basketball and open court in front of her.

    After a couple of games in recent weeks, Watkins – her own toughest critic, because there aren’t a lot of critics for a freshman averaging 26 points per game – has shaken her head when walking into postgame press conferences. Scoffed at herself. Her shooting numbers have been ugly during Pac-12 play as conference opponents have thrown the kitchen sink at her. And USC’s offense has sputtered with its engine weary, dropping back-to-back games on the road after a momentous win over UCLA.

    Here’s the thing, though: it’s hard to set up and contain the slinky, 6-foot-2 Watkins when you’re backpedaling. And 11th-ranked USC re-ignited its early-season offensive spark on Friday night against Washington State, blitzing the Cougars from the opening tip in an eventual 70-62 win, by simply not permitting the visitors to play defense.

    It sounds strange. But it’s easier done than said, actually. Step one: trap any Cougar who dares venture into the paint or handle the ball on the perimeter, flash a hand anytime a ball is in your airspace, and nab a steal – USC (13-3 overall, 3-3 Pac-12) forced nine turnovers in the first half. Step two: let Watkins pick up the loose ball or find her in transition.

    Step three: profit.

    “I mean, it’s high-powered offense, right?” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said postgame. “Like, we get a lot of easy baskets in that first half – that, when I say easy, they’re not easy for anyone except JuJu, or (McKenzie Forbes).”

    Time and time again, Watkins put her head down and simply bull-rushed to the rim in transition, virtually unstoppable with the ball in her hands. On a night around the NBA in which it seemed as if your local plumber could step onto the court and score 20, she put on her own display at the Galen Center, scoring 29 points on 10-of-27 shooting. She froze Washington State defenders with a staple left-to-right hesitation crossover – quickly becoming one of the more dominant moves in college basketball – hitting a fall-away baseline jumper at the first-quarter buzzer and celebrating with a Cristiano Ronaldo “SUIII” celebration, popularized around USC by Zachariah Branch.

    And in the fourth quarter, with minutes waning, Watkins stuck the knife – spinning out on the perimeter, then yanking a dribble between her legs so violently it ripped the footing out from Washington State’s Jessica Clarke, draining a suddenly wide-open 3-pointer as her teammates collapsed in elation on the bench.

    “I saw it coming,” Forbes smiled postgame. “The moment she went back that way and the girl kinda chested up and stopped her, I said, yeah, she’s going … she’s going down.”

    Watkins was helped throughout the night by senior co-star Forbes, who is slowly inheriting a larger secondary creator role as the season wears on. Coach Lindsay Gottlieb has taken to staggering the minutes for Watkins and Forbes to give USC some on-ball juice when Watkins is on the bench, and Forbes was as assertive as she has been all season against Washington State (14-5, 3-3): draining jumpers off screens when Cougar defenders went underneath, hitting a momentum-securing 3-pointer as the visitors tried to chip into USC’s lead with Watkins on the bench in the third quarter.

    And Watkins’ shot faltered in the second half, make no mistake, despite that yo-yo cross. She’s shot 37% since the Pac-12 began, again visibly upset with her box score while trudging into the postgame presser. And yet after a couple of questions on Watkins’ efficiency postgame, Gottlieb stepped in — adamantly advocating confidence in her star freshman.

    “‘Oh, the efficiency’ — we are playing Pac-12 teams who are some of the best defensive teams in the league,” Gottlieb said postgame. “This isn’t a league where everyone’s in the (1990s), and every single gameplan’s about, ‘How do we stop this kid.’”

    So, yes, perhaps Watkins wants to see a few more jumpers go down in the half-court. Perhaps teams will continue finding ways, and bodies, to slow her in transition. Won’t matter, to Gottlieb, in how USC climbs on the shoulders of their freshman phenom.

    “There’s not one ounce of me,” Gottlieb said, “that wants to change or stifle anything that she’s capable of doing.”

    ​ Orange County Register