USC's JuJu Watkins taking phenomenal freshman season, newfound fame in stride


LAS VEGAS — JuJu Watkins is heading into her first NCAA Tournament with an appreciation for what brought her to this point.

Southern California’s star freshman was the nation’s second-leading scorer during a first season where she was a key player on a Trojans team that earned a No. 1 seed, and she became one of the faces of women’s college basketball along the way.

“It’s been amazing,” Watkins said during the recent Pac-12 women’s tournament, where USC claimed the title with a 74-61 victory over Stanford. “I think the level of competition, couldn’t have dreamed of, so just glad that I was able to really hit the ground running and experience so much great competition in my first year.”

The Trojans open the NCAA Tournament at home on Saturday against No. 16 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Getting here was the culmination of a season where Watkins made her mark early and often.

Watkins, an AP All-American, burst on the scene when she crossed over defenders, drove the lane, floated shots and scored 32 points in her college debut on Nov. 6, also in Las Vegas, as USC beat Ohio State 83-74. She continued the standout play throughout the season, including scoring a season-high 51 points during a 67-58 road victory at Stanford on Feb. 2.

“What makes her special is she has really good size, she’s about six foot, probably about 6-2 with the bun,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “She’s dynamic. She can handle the ball. She’s an athlete. She does a really good job of creating space. She’s improved her shooting since high school, so now she can hit a 3. She’s able to go downhill at will and because she’s always in attack mode you have to guard her. Thank God she is going to a different league (next season).”

Through her play, Watkins aligned herself with the likes of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese and Stanford’s Cameron Brink as the women continued to share — if not steal at times — the spotlight from the men this season. Watkins’ 27 points per game were second only to Clark (31.9), who became the all-time scoring leader in college basketball this season.

“It’s definitely exciting, just to see the atmosphere of women’s basketball, but also college basketball,” Watkins said. “I think that it’s really on the rise right now. So I’m just excited to be a part of it. So many great things happening, so much talent, that it’s well-deserved. I think we’re still on the rise, definitely more attention could be given to women’s sports as a whole, but we’re making it work.

Whatever becomes of USC during the upcoming tournament, the Trojans will be assured of having Watkins again even as other stars such as Clark and Brink make plans to head to the WNBA.

Watkins said even if the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement allowed players to leave earlier than their junior season, she’s enjoying her newfound stardom and is comfortable soaking up life on campus for now.

“It’s just a bonus on top of everything else, I’m definitely blessed to have (this lifestyle),” Watkins said. “(There were) a lot of players before me that have made this possible, very blessed to be in this position to be able to benefit off things like NIL, so it’s definitely a blessing.

“I love where I’m at. I love this team. I love the atmosphere of college basketball. So right now, I would say I would stay.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness



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