USC defeats No. 2 Stanford 74-61 to win Pac-12 title

USC won its first conference tournament in a decade, defeating perennial power Stanford 74-61 in the final Pac-12 title game.

LAS VEGAS–USC’s Women of Troy made history on Sunday afternoon, winning just the second conference tournament in program history by defeating No. 2 Stanford 74-61 in the last ever Pac-12 women’s basketball championship game at the world famous MGM Grand Garden Arena.

The 2023-24 Women of Troy join the 2013-14 team as the only groups in the history of USC’s storied women’s basketball program to win the conference tournament. In fact, Saturday marked the ten year anniversary of the program’s win in the 2014 edition of the final.

It was a fitting last hurrah for the conference’s women’s basketball chapter, as perhaps the brightest young star in its history faced off with the sport’s greatest coach in a chess match worthy of the Vegas spectacle.

“It is meaningful to me to get the championship in this iteration of what (the Pac-12) looks like. I don’t know that I’d be in coaching if it wasn’t for Tara (Vanderveer) and people like her who did it when there was no money and none of this. They paved the way for us,” said USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb

Grad student and Harvard transfer Mackenzie Forbes led the way for USC, winning tournament MVP honors with a championship game performance for the ages. Forbes scored 26 points on 11-21 shooting from the field and hit big shot after big shot to keep Stanford at bay.

“It’s truly unbelievable. I literally — when the confetti was falling, I said to G, am I dreaming, bro? It’s just unreal,” Forbes said. “I’ve been through a lot in my career, but I’ve never wavered and never stopped believing in myself and my capabilities.”

USC managed to win with a convincing effort despite one of Juju Watkins’ worst games of the season, in no small part because of Forbes’ ballistic shooting performance, but also because of star center Rayah Marshall. Marshall contributed 10 points on the offensive end while outrebounding Stanford star Cameron Brink 18-10 and held Brink relatively in check on the offensive end despite 19 points.

Another one of USC’s Ivy League transfers, Kayla Padilla, provided a much needed spark for USC in the first half. In one key sequence in the first quarter, Padilla made a three before taking a charge on the other end and making another three to bookend that. It became apparent then that USC may not even need Watkins at the peak of her powers to win the game.

“I’m just here to win. If I play zero minutes or 40 minutes, I don’t care if I’m the star of the broadcast or if no one mentions my name. This is what it’s all about,” Padilla said while pointing to her championship hat.

For what it was worth, Juju wasn’t near her peak. In addition to her bad ankle, Vanderveer’s defensive gameplan completely neutralized her and forced her teammates to step up alongside of her.

“From a game-plan standpoint, Tara ‘Tara’ed’ and came out with a defense that I’ve never seen,” said USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “Again, you have to credit JuJu. There was not one, not two, not three — five people around her because of the respect they have for her, and we found a way because we know that we’re a true team.

“I’ve long learned I shouldn’t try to outsmart Tara or outthink her. She’s going to do something. I thought there could be a number of things, right?,” Gottlieb said. “I thought we might have seen almost exactly the same as what we saw at Stanford (when Juju scored 51), because they might have rolled the dice and she’s not going to do that again.

“Then there was a clip, where on College Gameday today, Cam says we’re going to trap or double more. Actually it turned into — it wasn’t a hard traps. It wasn’t Arizona traps where we’re blitzing. It was two or three kind of shadowing her all the time.”

It was an exceedingly rare game for USC where someone else had a usage percentage even in the same stratosphere as Watkins, but Forbes took advantage of her opportunities at a remarkable clip in the biggest moments of the game. Whenever they needed what would have usually been a bucket from Watkins, Forbes was there to execute as the featured player in the offense with all of Stanford’s attention turned to Watkins.

“Like Coach (Gottlieb) said, Tara was going to Tara. I knew they were going to come with something considering the last game,” Forbes said. “I knew I had to be aggressive from the start if we were going to have a chance to win the game. Just try to get people where they need to be. JuJu, when she doesn’t have the ball she’s a great floor spacer because they have to be attached to her body. That opened up a lot of things for me as well.”

For second-ranked Stanford and star Cameron Brink, the loss meant that the Pac-12’s most prolific women’s basketball program, coach, and it’s current Player of the Year wouldn’t be the ones hoisting the trophy after the conference’s final tournament. Still, they hope it will be a catalyst for what could be Brink’s second national title run.

“Basketball is a game of wins and losses. You’re not going to win every single game. We fought our best. Shots didn’t fall for us. We gambled on some people on defense,” said Brink “It’s not fun to lose. It sucks, and it sucks it’s the last Pac-12 game ever because it’s such a great conference. But I think we’re just going to use this. We learn from it and we go into March, and, yeah, we’re going to turn some heads, hopefully.”