USC women’s basketball head coach Lindsay Gottlieb has gushed about JuJu Watkins from the beginning. Now other people are noticing. Everyone in the basketball world — not just the women’s basketball community — is still buzzing about Watkins’ 51-point masterpiece for USC against Tara VanDerveer’s Stanford Cardinal on Friday.
The 51 points are impressive without any context, but they become even more impressive with layers of context added: on the road. At Stanford. The No. 4 team in the country. The first-place team in the Pac-12. Coached by VanDerveer, a legend of the game.
The 51 points for Watkins came after her worst game of the season against Washington several days earlier. The 51 points came when USC had lost three of four and needed to turn its season around. The 51 points might have saved USC’s season, relative to the central goal of hosting NCAA Tournament opening-round games (by getting a top-four seed in March Madness).
Luca Evans of The Orange County Register noted that the trust and mutual respect between Watkins and head coach Lindsay Gottlieb are powerful and strong.
“It’s the mentality that’s underwritten every facet of this scintillating USC season. When top recruit Watkins unveiled her commitment live on ESPN on Nov. 15, 2022, in front of a packed crowd of family sporting Watkins-themed T-shirts, she could’ve easily announced she was headed to Stanford – a more established program in Watkins’ final three choices. Instead, she chose USC, a school that hadn’t advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2006. She chose home. And she chose Gottlieb.
“’It is never lost on me,’ Gottlieb said Saturday. ‘Like, it is never not something that I think about, because I do think she’s different. She had a courage that I don’t think many people would have had. She had a belief in herself, and us, and in L.A. and USC.’”
“So Gottlieb has trusted in her, the same as Watkins has trusted in Gottlieb. And that’s meant – as Gottlieb has repeated multiple times – giving her freedom. Not stifling JuJu being JuJu. It was written in every shot Watkins dropped Saturday, scoring a near-unfathomable 51 of USC’s 67.”
Some coaches try to micromanage star players and damage the relationship between two of the most important people on a team. Gottlieb clearly has maintained Watkins’ trust, and it shows in how well — and how hard — Watkins is playing. This central relationship lies at the center of sustaining and improving USC women’s basketball. If this coach-player bond remains unbreakable, the Trojans are destined to be great.