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    UCLA vs. USC women’s basketball rivalry rooted in local pride
    • January 14, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — The apartment that USC’s Rayah Marshall spent middle school in is 15 minutes from the Galen Center, no freeways necessary, just a handful of side streets away from a different life in Los Angeles.

    It had two bedrooms, one bathroom. Marshall lived there, in middle school, with 16 of her cousins. Maybe 17.

    They’d crowd in the living room, sleeping on pallets together, her cousins’ mother in one bedroom and older cousins in the other. Hot water wasn’t a constant, and neither was a meal, eating late lunches instead of breakfasts to save money. College was an afterthought, money tight in a self-described harsh environment in the heart of Los Angeles. So Marshall turned to basketball as an escape, persuading one of her cousins to join her at a park down the street, the beginnings of a journey that’s led her to the arena 15 minutes away from a youth of claustrophobia.

    “It’s like I’m on a complete different side,” Marshall said in December, now a standout big on USC’s women’s team. “It’s like – I’m spiritual, so it’s something I thank God for. And just watching this part of L.A. unfold for me is unreal, and I count my blessings every day.”

    She is a first-generation student now at USC, the cornerstone of the rebuild of Trojans’ women’s basketball that’s continued with the arrival of JuJu Watkins, the very embodiment of the L.A. kid that coach Lindsay Gottlieb points to when she reminds her team:

    This could be the first time anyone here sees you play.

    “This is their chance to come to USC and see what is possible,” Gottlieb said after a December win over UC Riverside, her voice dripping with passion in speaking of local youth coming to Galen. “Are they going to be the next Rayah, or JuJu? I hope so – maybe then I’ll recruit ’em. But if not, maybe they just believe, ‘I can go to college’ … it’s so much bigger than me, and it’s bigger than even this particular crowd.”

    “Women’s basketball is really hot right now,” Gottlieb continued, a few words later. “Why not L.A.?”

    And indeed, the titanic wave of interest in college women’s basketball has carried especially to the beaches of Southern California, packing Pauley Pavilion full in a sell-out when dually undefeated UCLA (12-0) and USC (10-1) squads met for a crosstown showdown Dec. 30.

    Two weeks later, after the Bruins ground out a 71-64 win that lived up to the billing, USC announced that the Galen Center was sold out for a Sunday rematch, an achievement and anticipation both programs spoke of with bright eyes and wide smiles.

    There’s a deeper layer to this, deeper than UCLA’s 12-0 record and nine-game winning streak over USC (10-1), the heart of this matchup coming with kids like Marshall. Ten of these kids are homegrown, stories aplenty of battles in the Southern California prep scene, whether it be USC’s Kayla Padilla playing against the Bruins’ Charisma Osborne in Bishop Montgomery vs. Windward matchups or UCLA’s Londynn Jones and Corona Centennial hooping in high school against Watkins and Sierra Canyon.

    “It just brings so much competitiveness … this is something we’ve always dreamed of,” Jones said Friday, when asked about the local feel of the matchup.

    This isn’t just UCLA vs. USC, with recruits hand-picked from across the country and dropped into the middle of a historic rivalry. This is lifelongkids from Los Angeles playing for the very soul of the city.

    “How fun is that?” UCLA coach Cori Close said Friday. “I mean, it’s really an international event when you look at both teams, but I think there is something a little extra for those Southern California kids – and both of us have Southern California kids coming next year.”

    “And I just think we’re beginning,” Close continued, turning into a pitchman with grandiose intentions. “We’re just scratching the surface on how fun this is going to be. I think both programs are going to have visions of competing for championships. And, get on board, L.A. Don’t miss out. If you’re a corporate sponsor, TV coverage, extra things that are happening … don’t miss out. Get on board.”

    It’ll be the greatest test yet for transcendent freshman Watkins, who’s hit somewhat of a shooting slump since Pac-12 play began – sub-40% across her past three outings – despite a still-dominant all-around impact. The Bruins limited and frustrated her two weeks ago, holding her to 7-of-24 shooting as they beat the Trojans with more depth despite 23 points from USC’s McKenzie Forbes. And the amount on Watkins’ shoulders has seemed to fatigue her at times, needing to exit for a few minutes in USC’s win over Oregon State over the weekend.

    “She’s going to be forced to more indecision and reads and talent that she’s not faced before,” Close said of Watkins now playing in the Pac-12. “She’s doing a heck of a job, but I would be surprised if she wasn’t experiencing maybe a little lower shooting percentage.”

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    And UCLA simply has a depth of more offensive weapons than USC. Four players – dominant 6-foot-7 center Lauren Betts, sweet-shooting Jones, point guard Kiki Rice and stalwart Osborne — scored in double figures in the Bruins’ first win over the Trojans, and sophomore forward Gabriela Jaquez (sister of former UCLA men’s standout Jaime Jaquez Jr.) adds another threat off the bench. And UCLA has continued to scout Watkins hard, a group of practice players wearing mock-USC jerseys and one sporting Watkins’ No. 12 at a Friday practice.

    So Sunday, in all likelihood, will come down to Marshall, Padilla and others’ ability to capitalize on defensive attention brought by the freshman.

    It’ll come down, too, to those same kids fighting for an opportunity they once grew up dreaming of.

    “I just feel like putting on for your city,” Marshall said, “is just the greatest feeling ever.”

    ​ Orange County Register