Plaschke: JuJu Watkins proves she's capable of leading USC women to the Final Four


On her first possession of her first game in her first dance, Judea Skies Watkins lost the ball.

She dribbled directly into the hands of the Texas A&M Corpus Christi defense. She froze. She glared. She winced.

You know what that means.

It’s JuJu Time.

The coolest collegiate women’s basketball player on the planet routinely produces plays so picturesque, every smudge is briefly met with a pained annoyance that inspires her to retrieve the brush and swirl anew.

“I gave myself a little grace,” the USC wunderkind said. “It was like, the first play, I haven’t played in two weeks, OK, let me get it back.”

Oh, she got it back, all of it, and then some.

Moments after Saturday’s opening turnover, Watkins dribbled the ball in circles outside the three-point line before smoothly pulling up and nailing a three.

Moments after that, she cut behind the defense, cradled a pass, and scored on a splendid backdoor layup.

That gave her 815 points for the season, breaking legendary Cheryl Miller’s 38-year-old school record.

A couple of hours later, Watkins had helped produce a more important number — one — as she led the top-seeded Trojans to an 87-55 win over the 16th-seeded Islanders at a nearly full Galen Center.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, still don’t really know what to expect,” the freshman guard said of her first NCAA tournament experience. “I’m just here for the ride.”

As Saturday once again illustrated, Watkins will be doing the steering. She overcame her shaky first play with her typical 30-something minutes of brilliance, scoring four points under her average with 23 but hammering the Islanders with everything else. She had five rebounds, four assists, four blocks and enough activity to draw seven fouls, the stirring scorer also doing the dirty work.

At various points, she whipped passes that became three-pointers, hit a midrange jumper while being tackled, stole a midcourt dribble that became a layup, and once even swatted a shot off the court and into the tunnel.

“I think we’re watching something really spectacular happen with JuJu,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “To look at the overarching thing of the impact she’s had on a program, she makes others around her better.”

Make no mistake, this is only the start, for both the 18-year-old kid and this special team. The Trojans, who play eighth-seeded Kansas in the second round here Monday night, have plenty more in the tank. The Trojans are talented enough and hot enough — with 13 wins in their last 14 games — to wind up in the Final Four.

JuJu Watkins, welcome to the world.

“There’s 31 games behind us that show people that she’s the ‘now’ for women’s basketball,” Gottlieb said last week. “I think any time she has an opportunity to play, she realizes what goes along with being JuJu, that there are a lot of eyes on her, I don’t know that this is necessarily different in that sense, but I do think probably a broader audience will see her and she just needs to be her and we just need to be us as a team.”

If they do reach Cleveland, Watkins will surely be anointed as next season’s Caitlin Clark while possibly meeting the Iowa star in a semifinal showdown for the ages.

Watkins ranks second nationally behind Clark in scoring while perhaps rating higher in likability.

Nobody is resentful of Watkins’ fame because she’s not yet nationally famous. Nobody questions Watkins’ trash talk because on the court, she doesn’t talk, preferring to communicate in understatement, a raised eyebrow, an outstretched palm, a giant sigh.

Nobody begrudges Watkins’ success because she still seems so darned untainted by it.

In her postgame news conference Saturday, she admitted she had no idea she broke Miller’s record, then referred to Miller as the “G.O.A.T.” when talking about it.

“I’m just so grateful to be in that mention and to be part of the Trojan legacy,” she said.

Later, she seemed more excited by the two baskets scored by longtime walk-on and crowd favorite India Otto, exclaiming, “Those are the best points I’ve seen all season.”

She then turned to Otto on the news conference stage, bumped fists, and said, “Congrats, bro.”

She spoke with a warmth that sounded like selflessness. She spoke with the spirit of a leader.

“JuJu handles the weight of everything with just a grace you can’t describe,” Gottlieb said.

And then there’s that name. JuJu. JuJu! What a great moniker. Just like her. Colorful, expressive, perfectly balanced, punchy without being pretentious.

Late in the third quarter Saturday, a chant began to flow from the Galen Center stands.

“Ju-Ju Wat-kins…Ju-Ju Wat-kins,” the crowd roared.

The interesting thing about the cheer was, it was completely random. Watkins had not just made a dramatic play. She was just calmly and expressionlessly grinding.

The crowd can feel the court become magical simply by her presence. She was being cheered just for being herself.

While other teams have their mojo, the Trojans women have their JuJu.

After it ended, in a hallway off the court, Watkins stopped for photos with the two youngest children of a player who once had a similar mystical presence. Yeah, how perfect, she posed with Bianka and Capri Bryant.

Oh, and remember that turnover on her first possession?

She didn’t make another one the entire game.

“That’s crazy, yeah,” Watkins said with a giant JuJu smile.

One down, history to go.



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