STANFORD, Calif. — On Sunday night, USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb got a call from a security guard asking if freshman guard JuJu Watkins could be kicked out of the gym. Watkins got the shots following an off-night in the Trojans' three-point loss to Washington, their third loss in four games.
“No,” Gottlieb told the security officer. “Let Joo be Joo.”
Fast forward to Friday night, and Watkins never found his shot again — cementing his status as the leading player of the year and cementing himself as player of the year. No. 4 on Stanford's home floor, and against a game-winning coach in Tara VanDerveer, Watkins dropped 51 points on 14-of-26 shooting from the field to lift the Trojans to 15th over the Cardinal in teams. 'Final regular-season Pac-12 meet.
Watkins' performance, the first 50-point game in Division I this season, broke the school record and marked the second-most points in a Pac-12 game behind Kelsey Plum's 57 against Utah in 2017.
Juju Watkins Masterclass. pic.twitter.com/xH5seAFPgc
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Watkins made his presence felt across the court. In addition to his four steals and two assists, he finished with 11 rebounds, becoming the first Division I player with 50 points and 10 rebounds in the last 25 seasons and the first player with 40 points and 10 rebounds this season. According to ESPN Stats and Information Research.
The performance was so spectacular that in the second half the Maples Pavilion crowd couldn't react in awe of Watkins hitting shot after shot, where she was on the floor or what defensive scheme Stanford was throwing.
“Every time I hit it, all I heard was OOO,” Watkins said. “It didn't even look like a flower. I was like, 'Okay.' It was crazy.”
Watkins scored 76% of USC's points, the highest percentage scored by a player over the last 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. There were only three other players on the board for the Trojans — the same number of USC post players who fouled out with 4:02 left in the fourth quarter.
Stanford and Colorado now occupy the top two spots in the Pac-12 standings at 8-2, while USC improved to 5-4.
Gottlieb saw something special for Watkins in the days he lost to Washington. Watkins disappointed with his individual production, scoring 19 points on 8-of-27 shooting, one of his worst points in conference play. She said she had trouble sleeping after the game.
For Gottlieb, Watkins' demeanor sets her apart, as does her on-court prowess.
“All week I said, 'This kid is different,'” Gottlieb said. “She's special, the way she takes coaching, the way she's a teammate, the way she holds herself accountable, the way she raises her level… so I'm not predicting this, but I think she has all that specialness inside. If you love basketball, I don't know how you get carried away and then it came out today.”
Gottlieb was relieved when Watkins hit his first 3-point attempt Friday in Maples — as Watkins recalled sitting in the stands years before his official visit, as a recruit before eventually choosing USC. The freshman was in a bit of a slump and didn't make more than two 3s in each of his previous eight games. He finished 6 for 11 from deep Friday night, outpacing Stanford's team total (4 for 15).
Stanford tried multiple defenders on Watkins to try and slow her down, but to no avail. That, along with the Cardinal's offensive struggles, led to their first home loss of the season.
With the score at 31 at half-time, Watkins found himself on 25 and realized he could get 50. He then scored USC's first 15 points, enough to help the Trojans. Hold off a late Stanford run in the fourth.
“Once she got going,” VanDerveer said of Watkins, “the basket was too big for her.”
Watkins scored from the field in the final 15 minutes, but he made 13 of 15 free throws in the second half. By the end of the game, he had drawn 16 fouls and made 19 free throws.
Against Stanford, and at Stanford, it was a rare individual performance. At the turn of the century, the most runs scored by a player against the Cardinal was 44.
Watkins only played 19 games in his college career.
“I think it probably goes up there,” Vanderveer said when asked if it was the best freshman performance he's seen. “Yes, she is very talented.”
Gottlieb added: “You came up with the best player, our guys fought and did what we had to do, so I'm very proud of the win, this team was able to do it tonight. I'll never forget it.”
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