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Team chemistry + crowds = revitalized program and Sweet 16 trip

McKenzie Forbes blocks Zakiyah Franklin's shot. Grace Steensma/University Daily Kansas photo.
McKenzie Forbes blocks Zakiyah Franklin’s shot. Grace Steensma/University Daily Kansas photo.

The raucous crowd at USC’s Galen Center reached a crescendo Monday night, with 1:04 remaining, as freshman standout JuJu Watkins hit a jumper that would be the last points of the night for either team.

“USC! USC! USC!” the packed house of 8,941 chanted, as a trip to the Sweet 16 became inevitable for the No. 1 seed Trojans for the first time in 30 years.

When the final buzzer sounded to a 73-55 win over eighth-seeded Kansas, players hugged each other briefly. Then they all took off running down the court towards the student section, where they leaned over the rail or ascended into the seats to give fans hugs, high-fives and exchange smiles and words.

Afterwards, Watkins and senior McKenzie Forbes said the team wanted to make sure their fans knew how much their support had meant to them during the season.

“It’s such a blessing to play in front of this crowd…..we didn’t want to leave the court,” Forbes said. “I wanted to go around and make sure the fans know we appreciate them so much. They had that place jumping, and it’s so much fun to play in front of a crowd like that.”

Watkins noted that it was a school and work night, and a Monday, at that.

“We have students who probably have homework and school in the morning, so just to know that people really support us throughout their busy schedule,” she said. “They could really be doing anything else, but they decided to be here, so we’re grateful for them.”

A long line waits to get autographs from Trojan players after a game last fall. Sue Favor photo.

The meteoric rise of the USC program in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s third season saw them entering the season unranked, to quickly ascending to the top 10, where they lived for the rest of the way. They stunned Stanford to win the Pac-12 Tournament Championship earlier this month. And at 28-5 going into Saturday’s matchup with Baylor, the Trojans have their most wins since the 1985-86 season.

Individual records have been reached, too. With a Division I second-best 861 points so far, Watkins now owns the USC single-season scoring record. She is also the program’s single-season free throws leader.

Gottlieb coached for eight years at Cal before taking an assistant coaching position in the NBA for two seasons. In taking the job in Troy, she knew she was in for a challenge. But she said she had a vision of greatness in her mind. This year, with packed arena after packed arena, the picture in her mind was realized.

“It means to much,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t know if they understand it, because I sat with people when I first got the job and they said, no one comes to games. I literally had another coach say, why would you go there when they only get X number of fans. And I said you know, it’s going to take us a little bit, but we’re going to get fans in here.”

“So I’m proud of that.”

In 2022, Gottlieb loaded up on athletes from the transfer portal. This created a combination of newcomers and veterans that combined effectively enough to take them into the first round of the NCAA Tournament last spring. Last year she employed the same strategy, but this time focused in on a core group of Ivy League players with whom she was familiar. One of them – Forbes – had played for her in her last year at Cal.

The resulting combination of grad and other transfers, returners and Watkins, plus other newcomers, proved to be more successful than anyone had anticipated. Gottlieb said her athletes are tough play makers, but it is their overall team chemistry that gives her a sense of calm. How that cohesion came together so quickly and so completely, however, eludes her.

“I think it starts, obviously, with JuJu. In terms of the ability to raise up a program and do it selflessly and do it with magnetism, it doesn’t work if you have a star that people don’t want to play with,” Gottlieb said. “And then to have the maturity of the veteran kids around her….and then to have the returning kids come with us on this change.”

“You have to have the right people. They have to buy into the right things. We’ve been challenged at times this year. Anything that could have been adverse, they turned it into a positive. We keep getting better, and it’s…really a beautiful thing.”

The Trojans have had their share of local talent, including starting forward Rayah Marshall and reserve India Otto. But signing No. 1 recruit Watkins was a coup that no one necessarily knew was coming.

JuJu Watkins signs autographs on senior day. Sue Favor photo.

Crowds have swelled into the arena’s upper decks this season, as fans of all ages file in wearing her jersey. The arena emcee has popularized a cheer that fans chant both inside and outside: “Hey, JuJu!” About 200 people waited for her to emerge from the arena after the Jayhawks win, screaming and cheering when she opened the door to come outside. She obliged with autographs and photos for several minutes afterwards.

“It’s a blessing to play by her side,” Forbes said. “She’s an incredible generational talent.”

Watkins downplays her effect on the program. On Monday, she gave the same answer she always does when asked why she chose to come to Troy.

“I mean, like coach said, it’s the people. I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Watkins said. From our staff to our president to our athletic director, I mean, so many great people that have invested into this program, and our success is a product of all of them buying in. I’m just grateful to be here.”

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