By Eric Lambkins II
Sports Reporter 

Shooting woes doom Trojans against crosstown rivals

 

January 4, 2024

George Laase

USC's JuJu Watkins, right, drives to drive past UCLA's Londynn Jones during their classic matchup last week.

In one of the most important women's basketball games in history between the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans Juju Watkins and McKenzie Forbes fought out of jams and dug their team out of holes. Yet, despite their grit, the USC duo couldn't conjure that final surge to triumph in the packed and buzzing Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus.

Both of their schools rarely fill half their arenas but on December 30, 2023, UCLA packed the house. They all came to see No. 2 UCLA (12-0) battle No. 6 USC (10-1).

UCLA's Londynn Jones scored 21 points, sank five three-pointers, and snagged seven rebounds. Her stellar performance spearheaded UCLA to a hard-fought 71-64 victory last Saturday over Southern California.

Amidst the anticipation of a clash destined to carve its place as a highlight in women's college basketball, a surge of eager viewers across the nation found themselves adrift, struggling to find a channel airing the showdown between two top-tier teams. The collision of these powerhouse squads, a spectacle brewing with excitement and promise, eluded the screens of many, leaving a sense of missed opportunity and frustration lingering in its wake.

"I literally had NBA GMs, or coaches, or friends on the East Coast going, 'How do I watch the game,'" USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "We've got an exciting team, and people want to see us, and our job is to continue to get better so when we are on national TV, people want to come out and watch us play."

Pauley Pavilion buzzed like a hive of energy, packed to the rafters with 13,659 patrons-an all-time high for a UCLA women's game. Basketball legends and Bruin alums like Russell and Nina Westbrook, Baron Davis, and Natalie Williams were among the sea of faces, lending their aura to the electric atmosphere.

The game's luminaries were added to the star-studded audience. WNBA royalty Candace Parker, Sparks head coach Curt Miller, and former NBA player Wesley Johnson, each taking the game from their vantage points in the stands. It was a gathering of basketball minds, a fusion of past, present, and future, all converging to witness the brilliance on the court.

Watkins, known for her scoring prowess as the nation's second-leading scorer (26.8), stepped onto the court, carrying her team's hopes. But this night, her typically reliable shot faltered, marking a rare off-night in her shooting history-a frustrating 7 for 24 performance that didn't reflect her usual precision.

The game started with UCLA surging ahead, a commanding 12-2 lead that set the tone. Yet, resilient USC mounted a spirited response, orchestrating a 9-0 streak that closed the first quarter with an air of competitiveness.

For Watkins, the opening quarter painted a challenging picture, shooting one of five from the field, but she and Forbes, undeterred, ignited a spark in the second quarter. Together, they weaved 22 crucial points, breathing life into the Trojan's hopes with synchronized play.

The Bruins clung to a narrow 38-37 lead at the half, setting the stage for an intense second act. The pivotal moment that doomed USC arrived in the third quarter, where the Trojans hit a rough patch. Their shooting woes were palpable, evident in an 0-9 start.

As the clock wound down in the third quarter, UCLA held a commanding 10-point lead.

With just under seven minutes remaining, Watkins pulled off a breathtaking 3-pointer, pulling USC within striking distance at 60-59. Yet, UCLA wasn't ready to relinquish control. They launched an 8-2 offensive flurry, carving out some much-needed breathing space. Jones, with a pair of electric 3-pointers, emerged as the catalyst in securing UCLA's pivotal advantage.

The Trojans sealed their struggle with a draining drought, extending nearly four minutes, going 0 for their last 7.

"It's not great to lose personally but this is a learning lesson," said Watkins. "We haven't faced a team like this so far. I needed to get used to the physicality and needed to slow things down."

Watkins scored 27 points and 11 rebounds, and Forbes scored 23 points. Rayah Marshall grabbed 13 rebounds.

Four Bruins, led by Jones, scored in double figures. Lauren Betts grabbed eight rebounds.

USC will host Oregon State on Friday and Oregon on Sunday.

UCLA will host Oregon on Friday and Oregon State on Sunday.

Follow Eric on Twitter @elambsquared and Instagram @elamb5quared.

 

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