USC advances to Pac-12 title game with double OT win over UCLA

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Juju Watkins pushed through the pain to lead USC to a thrilling 80-70 double overtime win over UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals.

LAS VEGAS — Juju Watkins is a lot of things. “Different” might be the only way to truly describe it.

The Los Angeles native led all scorers in the all-LA edition of the Pac-12 semifinals on Thursday night, pouring in 33 points to lead USC to a win over crosstown rival UCLA. All while battling an ankle injury that sent her to the locker room on two separate occasions.

The Women of Troy rallied around her and pulled out an 80-70 win in double overtime win over their Westwood rival to advance the last ever Pac-12 women’s basketball championship game.

“Obviously words aren’t going to feel like it does it justice. What an epic evening for women’s college basketball, for our program, for the L.A. rivalry,” said USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

“UCLA is so good. There’s not a lot of ‘like’ between the schools. Nothing bad. It’s just rivalry, but there’s a ton of respect, and I think it was a battle.”

The game started with a scare for USC when star freshman Juju Watkins went down with what looked like a rolled ankle just 48 seconds into the contest. However, a scare was all it was at that point as Watkins came back to the court within minutes and led the Women of Troy on an immediate 16-0 run.

Watkins led the run with 10 points including eight in a row at one juncture. Mackenzie Forbes and Kaitlyn Davis aided Watkins in the rally, as they contributed five and four points in the opening quarter respectively.

The second quarter was a much different story. UCLA’s star center Lauren Betts ended the USC run from the first quarter with the first basket from either team in the second. After Juju Watkins answered Betts to stretch USC’s lead to 26-10, UCLA went on a 16-0 run to tie the game. The run culminated with a three pointer from Charisma Osborne that pleased the Westwood faithful before Kayla Williams ended the rally by converting two free throws.

“It was a bruising, physical game. Nothing about it was particularly pretty except for the beauty of toughness,” Gottlieb said. “Obviously we started the last two games hot and let teams back in. They pose a lot of problems. They’re really good, so they test you on every level.”

USC found their bearings toward the end of the second quarter, going on another 7-0 run after trailing 31-30, entering halftime with a 37-31 lead after a largely disastrous second quarter.

UCLA got as close as within a basket during the third quarter, but each time they looked like they could make a move into the lead, it seemed Juju Watkins was there with another bucket to set them back further.

Despite this, the Bruins entered the fourth quarter down just three points and were still in prime position to make a comeback if they could just find a rhythm.

Granted, Lindsay Gottlieb and the Trojans were making this quite difficult by throwing the kitchen sink at Betts with double teams and the rest that prevented her from making a major scoring impact through three quarters.

“She’s got to get (the ball) more, especially tonight,” said UCLA coach Cori Close said about Betts. “I thought she did a much better job in the second half of getting deeper post-ups. She was getting a little too far out in the first half.

“I thought she made a really good adjustment in the second to get those deeper post-ups so she didn’t have to have so many dribbles, which allowed them to dig in out of that.”

UCLA took a 54-51 lead early in the fourth quarter before Juju Watkins again took over and contributed six points to an 8-0 USC run that put them up by five with just over four minutes left.

The final minutes of regulation were an absolute slugfest, with UCLA scoring the only five points in the last four minutes to send it to overtime.

Overtime brought another cardiac inducing moment for USC fans, as Watkins hit the floor hard after rolling her ankle again.

This time, she stayed on the floor for an extended period of time before she was helped to the bench and eventually the locker room with 3:56 remaining in the first overtime period.

And then, with the Women of Troy fighting keep UCLA within striking distance, Watkins suddenly and inexplicably returned, thus allowing the Bruin lead to only stretch to four.

“She’s not like a kid who five times a game is down and we’re helping her out and she’s back. I knew it was significant,” said Gottlieb. “But I also wasn’t as shocked as I might have been that she came back, just knowing her toughness level.”

Watkins’ fighting spirit to return to the court while clearly in immense pain served as a parallel to another Los Angeles basketball legend, one who has oft been the subject of cliche.

“Honestly, I think it just comes from the team. Having so many great people around me, always trusting in me, believing in me, it makes me who I am,” Watkins said.

“I’m just grateful to be part of this team.”

After Watkins was unable to get a shot off on USC’s last possession overtime number one, UCLA had a chance to win the game with 1.8 seconds left but also couldn’t get a shot up. In the last ever Pac 12 women’s basketball semifinal, we went to double overtime.

USC was finally able to lock it up in the second overtime, outscoring the Bruins 13-3 thanks to an offensive rhythm that was completely absent in the final minutes of regulation and the first overtime.

“I’m not going to lie, I did not think this would happen this soon,” Watkins said. “But I guess timing is everything, and I’m glad that we’re here. This group — it means everything. And I’m just blessed, honestly. But, yeah, better than anything I ever could have hoped for really.”

USC guard Mackenzie Forbes added 15 points, including a few big time buckets down the stretch during crunch time when USC needed them most.

Charisma Osborne led UCLA in scoring with 21 in the loss. Lauren Betts added 18 rebounds for the Bruins despite being held relatively quiet on the offensive end throughout.

USC advances to play Pac-12 No. 1 seed and nationally ranked No. 2 Stanford on Sunday afternoon in the last ever women’s basketball championship game for the storied conference. Tip off is set for 2:30 p.m. at MGM Grand.