JuJu Watkins puts on a show as USC extends its home winning streak

Southern California guard JuJu Watkins, right, and forward Kaitlyn Davis congratulate each other.
USC guard JuJu Watkins (12) and forward Kaitlyn Davis celebrate during a 70-62 win over Washington State at Galen Center on Friday. Watkins finished with a game-high 29 points. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The crowd gasped as a Washington State defender tumbled to the floor. JuJu Watkins tends to have that effect on fans.

One vicious crossover at a time, Watkins helped No. 11 USC bounce back from a road sweep at Colorado and Utah with a 70-62 win over Washington State at Galen Center on Friday. Watkins had 29 points with seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Graduate transfer McKenzie Forbes notched 22 points, four rebounds and three assists as the Trojans (14-3, 4-3 Pac-12) improved to 11-0 at home, part of 15 consecutive home victories dating to last season.

The defending Pac-12 tournament champion, Washington State (14-6, 3-4 Pac-12), pushed USC in the second half by cutting a 20-point lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter. Even with her top two scorers dominating, USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she felt so stressed the whole game that she needed a postgame protein smoothie that is usually reserved for players.

“This league is so darn good, man,” Gottlieb said. “Everyone's good; you never feel like a lead is safe.”

Watkins made it look almost effortless. She kept a blank expression as she hit an open three after sending Washington State’s Jenna Villa to the floor with a smooth crossover. In transition, she faked to the left before crossing over opponents in the lane for easy layups. Watkins, with 21 points in the first half, was only four points behind the Cougars’ total at the break.

But after making seven of 15 shots in the first half, Watkins was one for five in the third quarter. She looked at the final box score showing her 10-for-27 shooting with disgust.

“Trying to make the right plays and being more careful in my shot selection, I think that's what I need to start doing more,” said Watkins, who is shooting 36.9% from the field and 19.5% from three-point range during conference play. “I'm just happy that we won, honestly, and I'm grateful that we did well in the first half.”

USC’s start was one of its best halves of the season, inspired play by a team desperate to turn the page. After defeating rival UCLA at home, the Trojans lost to then-No. 20 Utah by 20 in Salt Lake City and almost upset No. 3 Colorado, but lost by four points.

“The lesson is Colorado, who is a projected No. 1 seed and really, really good, and we're right there. So decide,” Gottlieb said. “Decide if we want to be normal, decide if we want to be ordinary and be ‘almost there’ or decide if we want to take another step. But in this league, you can't take any steps unless you take care of the next game in front of you, especially when you're at home.”

The home crowd gave a warm welcome to the road-weary Trojans.

After a program-best 10,657 fans sold out Galen Center for the matchup against UCLA on Jan. 14, USC entered Friday’s game with an average attendance of 3,462, more than three times last year’s average of 1,037. Before this season, USC hadn’t averaged even 2,000 fans a game this millennium.

Even on Friday night against an unranked opponent, USC drew 2,671 to Galen Center. Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge, speaking to Gottlieb before the game, marveled at the crowd.

“We feel a huge responsibility that this is still a growing thing,” Gottlieb said. “There's people that are loyal who have been here and there are people that are coming to their first time ever watching women's basketball … It’s never lost on us, but it's also a huge responsibility.”

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Watkins’ play has been the main draw for the record-setting crowds.

Fans sitting courtside stood and waved their hands in disbelief after the Watts native danced with a defender and drained a midrange baseline jumper as the first quarter expired. Even Watkins seemed impressed by the play.

She hit Cristiano Ronaldo’s signature “Siuu” celebration on the way to the USC huddle.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.