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No. 2 UCLA at No. 9 USC: Will JuJu Watkins and the Trojans strike back?

Kayla Williams, Charisma Osborne, Rayah Marshall, Londynn Jones, JuJu Watkins and Lauren Betts.
USC will look to avenge its loss to UCLA last month when the teams renew their rivalry Sunday. Clockwise from top left: Kayla Williams, Charisma Osborne, Rayah Marshall, Londynn Jones, JuJu Watkins and Lauren Betts. (Associated Press)

It has been almost four years since it happened, but Camryn Brown doesn’t forget. The UCLA guard can’t forget that two-point, double-overtime loss to USC at Galen Center during which the Bruins scored just two points in the second quarter and played without All-American Michaela Onyenwere.

“That game is tied in there,” Brown said, pointing to her temple, “deep.”

It’s Brown’s only loss to the Trojans, as the fifth-year graduate student has won nine consecutive games against her crosstown rival. No. 2 UCLA (14-0, 3-0 Pac-12) could push its rivalry winning streak to 10, the longest for either team in the series, Sunday against the ninth-ranked Trojans at 2 p.m. at Galen Center.

Read more: 'Sometimes you, sometimes me, always us': Selflessness at heart of UCLA's unbeaten start

UCLA handed USC (12-1, 2-1 Pac-12) its only loss of the season in a much-anticipated game at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 30. It was the first sellout in UCLA’s history, featuring the first time the rivals have played as unbeatens. The Trojans matched the effort by announcing another sold-out crowd for Sunday's game at Galen Center.

Players are relishing the opportunity to play in front of big crowds. Hearing boos from opposing fans lit a fire in USC forward Rayah Marshall. The Lynwood native is looking forward to getting a homecourt boost that could help the Trojans end their rivalry losing streak.

“They earned that respect,” Marshall said, “but at the end of the day, it’s time. It’s time for a new champion to take over.”

Here are three things to watch:

Local flavor

USC's Kayla Padilla, right, regains control of the ball in front of UCLA's Londynn Jones.
USC's Kayla Padilla, right, regains control of the ball in front of UCLA's Londynn Jones during the Bruins' win at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 30. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Marshall is one of several local players at the center of the women’s basketball revolution at USC and UCLA. The All-Pac-12 selection has teamed with star freshman JuJu Watkins as USC’s top L.A. stars, appealing to the community that is responding by bringing some of the largest crowds in decades.

Marshall acknowledges she has close friends on UCLA but personal history won’t matter Sunday.

“In between those four lines, if you’re not wearing SC, then at the end of the day, I gotta go after you,” said Marshall, who is averaging 13 points and 10.5 rebounds .

Marshall played on the U.S. national team this summer at the Americup tournament with UCLA’s Charisma Osborne and Lauren Betts. Osborne, a fifth-year guard who was named The Times’ player of the year three times while starring at Windward, played against USC’s Kayla Padilla in high school. Padilla is one of two Bishop Montgomery alumnae on USC’s roster, joining guard Kayla Williams. Londynn Jones, a Riverside native, and Camarillo’s Gabriela Jaquez are two of UCLA’s five players averaging double figures in scoring.

Read more: Why USC's JuJu Watkins is 'your favorite basketball player's favorite basketball player'

Padilla’s ties to UCLA are tricky, the point guard said. She wears No. 45, a nod to her high school coach, Noelle Quinn, one of UCLA's all-time greats. The current Seattle Storm coach was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020 as the first UCLA player to total 1,700 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists in her career.

Padilla, a transfer from Pennsylvania, wore Quinn’s jersey number while racking up first-team All-Ivy League honors three times at her previous school but had to get permission again to bring it to Quinn’s rival. Padilla asked by text.

“She left me on read for a little bit,” Padilla joked. “So there was some hesitation. But she was more than happy to let me.”

Run it back

USC center Rayah Marshall shoots between UCLA's Lauren Betts and Angela Dugalic.
USC center Rayah Marshall shoots between UCLA's Lauren Betts, left, and Angela Dugalic during the Bruins' win on Dec. 30. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With a quick, two-week turnaround from their last matchup, Sunday's rematch will be decided by “who learns the most," UCLA coach Cori Close said.

Fueled by their crowd, the Bruins jumped out to a 12-2 lead. It felt as if the Trojans “couldn’t have been any worse on offense in that first eight minutes,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.

But the Trojans adjusted to UCLA’s physical defense and fought back to make it a one-point game by halftime. UCLA won the rebounding battle 48-37 with Lauren Betts leading them with eight boards. UCLA outscored USC 26-14 in the paint and 16-6 on second-chance points.

“They killed us on the boards,” said Marshall, who had 13 rebounds and six points. “We know how well all five of their blue jerseys crash the boards, so I mean, if we can box out more, if we can have an eager[ness] to rebound more and close out on a couple more shots, I feel like we would have a ballgame.”

Read more: How UCLA's 'mind gym' helped Lauren Betts rebuild her confidence

It was the Pac-12 opener for both teams and USC, with a star freshman and three transfers in the starting lineup, still was growing together. Watkins sliced up USC’s nonconference opponents but had her worst shooting performance against the Bruins, going seven for 24 while scoring 27 points with 11 rebounds. During three Pac-12 games, Watkins, the No. 1 target on every opposing scouting report, is shooting 33.3% from the field compared to 49.4% during the nonconference season.

“It’s something that you gotta go through to learn and understand,” Gottlieb said. “There’s a different game plan every week and really good opponents, especially on the defensive end, size and speed and various things. But her IQ allows her to adjust and be better with each passing day.”

Who’s got next?

USC guard McKenzie Forbes reacts with guard Roxane Makolo after hitting a three-pointer against Cal Poly.

Watkins, an eight-time Pac-12 freshman of the week, wasn’t the only driving force behind USC’s second-half comeback. Close said she came away from the game most wary of McKenzie Forbes.

The Harvard transfer scored 23 points, including 11 in the second half. She was two for four from three-point range, hitting both in the third quarter. Padilla (38.9% from three-point range) and Forbes (36.5%) lead a dangerous offense that is easily the best USC has had in Close’s 13-year tenure at UCLA.

“Really good facilitator, good passer, high IQ and I think that for them, she’s been a connector,” Close said of Forbes. “And I think same with Padilla too. … [Forbes’] ability to stretch the floor and space it for both Rayah Marshall as well as JuJu, I think those two have been really, really important.”

Read more: Plaschke: UCLA women make a national statement with neighborhood victory

Watkins, averaging 26.1 points, has taken 39.8% of USC’s field-goal attempts during Pac-12 play. She took 33 shots in a gutsy win over Oregon State. Gottlieb doesn’t want to restrict Watkins but wants to be mindful of how much the 18-year-old is juggling, so the coach’s responsibility is about “putting the right support system around her,” Gottlieb said.

Watkins’ teammates understand their assignment around the star.

“We know she’s going to be the main focus of attention,” Padilla said. “So it’s on us, everyone who’s not on JuJu, to get her in the right places and just to make sure she feels supported through the highs and lows.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.