By the time the UCLA-USC game sold out last week, hype for the matchup was at a fever pitch. But so many questions remained.
Could the No. 2 Bruins play like a No. 1 team? Which one of their many scorers would step up? Could the No. 6 Trojans pull the upset behind their incredible freshman guard? Which team would remain undefeated after the final buzzer sounded?
Saturday’s 71-64 UCLA victory showed us what it takes to win when the stakes are at their highest. We learned about not just the teams, but what many of the individuals are about. And we understood that the future of women’s basketball in the Los Angeles area is even brighter than we imagined.
UCLA is a deep, skilled, unselfish team – the most dangerous kind
Center Lauren Betts, one of just two newcomers to the team this year, went into the rivalry game as their top scorer, with the best field goal percentage in Division I. But against USC she got off to a slow start and struggled to score, both from the field (she finished 5-11) and from the charity stripe (5-9).
Up stepped 5-4 guard Londynn Jones, one of five Bruins averaging double figures this year, to explode for 21 points. That included five 3-point shots – two of which came in the fourth quarter, to quell the Trojan’s final comeback attempt.
Senior guard Charisma Osborne, who also had an off shooting night, made up for it on lockdown defense of JuJu Watkins, the USC freshman sensation averaging a Division I second-best 26.8 points per game. Osborne’s suffocating presence helped limit Watkins to 7-24 on the night. And though the youngster eventually finished with 27 points, 11 of those had to come from the free throw line.
UCLA coach Cori Close credited her team’s poise in withstanding two Trojan comebacks from double digits – one in each half – in calling it “such a gutsy win.”
“I was proud of our response,” she said. “We had adversity, we had foul trouble, people who didn’t play as well as they wanted to the first half, and we responded. I’m proud of the steadiness of our seniors, and the elite leadership they showed.”
Jones said players know each other well, and “do a good job of finding the hot hand” to feed the ball to on any given night. Against USC, Betts finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks, while Kiki Rice scored 12 and Osborne put up 10 points, dished 6 assists and grabbed 5 rebounds.
Close said she is confident in the way her athletes share the ball, and the statistical load.
“We weren’t totally sure who (the scoring) was going to come from,” she said. “You’ve heard me say, ‘sometimes you, sometimes me, always us.’ That’s what I’m most proud of is that we have balance, and on any given night it could be any given person. It’s really nice to have that kind of depth. It may look different on any given night, but we have players who can make plays.”
Some of that confidence came from last season, in which the Bruins made a Sweet 16 run. A big part of their moxie this year was forged on the road, where they beat three ranked opponents, including then-No. 6 UConn, for the first time in program history.
UCLA players don’t focus on individual props or accolades – they just want to win.
Osborne continues to climb the school’s all-time scoring list, and recently set a record there for double-doubles. But it is not unusual to see her in tears after a particularly tough loss. Statistics do not mean as much to her as a win.
Rice, the nation’s No. 2 recruit in 2022, is not flashy or loud, despite having numerous NIL deals. She lets her game do the talking as a quiet net assassin with on-court moves and a calm that belies her years. The 6-7 Betts is a daunting presence in the paint, but the sophomore, who was the No. 1 high school player two years ago, still doesn’t realize how good she can be. When she figures that out, the entire conference is in trouble.
Jones, Gabriela Jaquez and Angela Dugalic are also lethal threats, and there are five others behind them ready to step up.
The Bruins have been plagued with injuries at times, these last few seasons of Close’s 13-year tenure. The 2023-2024 roster might be her deepest and most cohesive ever. If they stay healthy, they could win their first-ever Pac-12 title in the conference’s last year.
JuJu Watkins has the tools to become one of the greatest ever, and she’s bringing USC with her
Los Angeles native Watkins wasted no time living up to the hype that surrounded her as the nation’s top recruit, exploding for 32 points in USC’s season opener, to topple then-No. 7 Ohio State. She has scored at least 30 points five times, breaking a school record.
Watkins makes the game look easy, as she slices and cuts through any lane, making shots at every distance, and seemingly every angle. Her effect off of the court has been just as big, as crowds at the Trojan’s Galen Center have tripled in size since she arrived, with many children, women and men sporting her jersey.
But in the first few minutes of the game against UCLA, the FIBA multi-gold medalist and Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year looked shellshocked.
Watkins stretched to put up a shot, and the Bruin defense blocked it. She grabbed for the ball on another possession, and Jones tore it out of her grasp and ran the other way with it. When Watkins tried to make a pass, she ran into a wall of arms, and took a step back, her eyes wide. The wheels seemed to be turning in her head: What. Do I. Do?
She admitted as much after the game.
“We haven’t faced a team like this so far,” Watkins said. “I’m still getting used to the physicality. I had to slow it down, and really try to pick apart the defense.”
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said the difference in playing styles between the two teams caught her athletes off guard.
“It took a minute to adjust and deal with the physicality,” she said. “We play differently, with more space. Our players move around.”
Gottlieb said most younger players would have become overwhelmed with the intensity of UCLA’s defense. She credited what she characterized as Watkins’ maturity and poise for making adjustments, and for figuring out how to be successful, despite the pressure.
“When JuJu couldn’t score like she usually does, she got her way to the free throw line,” Gottlieb said. “To be able to adjust in real time and figure out what’s going on, and to get to a different spot….is really, really impressive.”
Watkins, who has plenty of reasons to boast, is instead down-to-earth, up front, and very willing to criticize herself.
“As a high school player kind of new to the game and new to college, I’m learning from every game,” she said. “I’m learning the defenses from each team, and I’m really learning how to slow myself down. This is an opportunity for me to learn more about myself and how I can continue to evolve as we play games like this.”
With a true generational player like Watkins, Gottlieb has the tools to fly in her third season at USC. Since coming to Troy after a successful coaching tenure at Cal, and as an assistant coach in the NBA, Gottlieb has rebuilt the roster there twice.
This year she has returning forward Rayah Marshall (13.3 points, 10.3 rebounds per game), and a fleet of capable graduate senior starters in McKenzie Forbes, Kayla Padilla, Kayla Williams and Kaitlyn Davis. Forbes has stepped up lately, scoring a career-high 36 points Dec. 21, and 23 points against the Bruins.
The difference for Gottlieb this year is that when this group of seniors leave, there will be a solid core to follow them in Taylor Bigby, Dominique Darius, Clarice Akunwafo, Malia Samuels and Aaliyah Gayles.
Until this week, the Trojans have been ranked above Stanford for most of the season. If they continue their quick learning curve, they could contend for the conference title with the Bruins.
Southern California basketball hasn’t looked this bright in a long time
Going into the weekend matchup, UCLA and USC had not met before as unbeatens, and they hadn’t faced off as top 10 teams since 1981.
With 13,659 in attendance, the Bruins set a single-game school record.
In today’s new AP top 25 poll, the Trojans fell just three spots to No. 9. Barring an upset over the next two weeks, the teams will still see a top 10 matchup when they meet again, Jan. 14, for part II of the annual rivalry series. No doubt Galen Center will sell out, too.
But the most exciting thing for Southern California women’s basketball fans is that has the game has risen these last few years, so has it re-emerged here.
Oh, what a time.