How USC women's basketball rose from the Pac-12 basement to become champion

Southern California's Kayla Williams, left, and Kayla Padilla, second from left, celebrate.
USC's Kayla Williams, left, and Kayla Padilla, second from left, celebrate after the Trojans defeat top-seeded Stanford to claim the women's Pac-12 tournament title on Sunday. (Ian Maule / Associated Press)

The Trojans weren't the only ones leaving MGM Grand Garden Arena as major winners Sunday night.

Amid the celebration of USC’s first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014, a fan shouted at USC forward Rayah Marshall that the Trojans, 8.5-point underdogs to top-seeded Stanford, had just won him $10,000. Marshall shouted back: “Fight on!”

“We're in Vegas,” the junior said afterward. “Anything is possible.”

Read more: USC stuns top-seeded Stanford to win women's Pac-12 tournament title

But USC's rapid rise from forgotten powerhouse to Pac-12 champion is not just a lucky run. Third-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb has been stacking up wins behind the scenes, from recruiting to strength and conditioning, that Marshall credited as “a culture shift” leading the Trojans back into the national spotlight.

“It's a reflection of our success on the floor,” Marshall said.

“Now literally we just won,” the junior forward said before correcting herself, "she just won the last Pac-12 championship.”

Gottlieb didn't leave the NBA to do anything less than this, even if it looked so far away when she took over in 2021. The Trojans hadn’t felt relevant in decades. USC hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2006 and hasn’t advanced to the second weekend of the Big Dance since 1994.

Gaining momentum in the Pac-12 tournament was difficult. The Trojans were “pissed” to get knocked out in the first round in back-to-back years, Marshall said.

USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb celebrates after cutting down the net following the Trojans' victory.
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb celebrates after cutting down the net following the Trojans' victory in the Pac-12 tournament championship game Sunday. (Ian Maule / Associated Press)

Then this season, they secured a first-round bye and the program’s highest seed in the conference tournament. The Trojans didn’t flinch on the big, unfamiliar stage in Las Vegas. They played with the combination of joy and urgency required in championship situations, Gottlieb said. Even after USC battled in double overtime in the semifinals against UCLA, players looked fresh against Stanford thanks to around-the-clock training. Players had their legs in massage therapy boots at 1 a.m. after the semifinal.

“I credit the mentality of our players,” Gottlieb said. “They just wouldn't be denied. … They were committed to the mission.”

Gottlieb said she started to see USC's championship potential immediately during summer practices when freshman JuJu Watkins looked every bit the superstar the No. 1 recruit was advertised to be. The coach had also surrounded the hometown hero with experienced transfers who, after starring at their former programs, were selfless enough to help a generational young talent shine.

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

Transfers McKenzie Forbes, Kayla Padilla and Kaitlyn Davis never imagined they would go from battling one another in the Ivy League to embracing in a shower of confetti at the Pac-12 championship game. While Watkins was held to a season-low nine points, Forbes, a Harvard transfer, was named tournament most outstanding player, averaging 17.3 points with 3.6 rebounds. Davis, a transfer from Columbia, had a season-high five assists with seven rebounds that helped USC outrebound Stanford by 20. Padilla held Stanford’s knockdown shooter Hannah Jump to just three points and then hit three of six three-point shots of her own.

A year ago, Padilla wondered if she would ever get to play in the NCAA tournament. She was the seventh-leading scorer in Pennsylvania school history and a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection who led the conference in scoring as a senior with 17.7 points. But she didn’t want to celebrate any individual accolades Sunday night.

“This,” she said, pointing at the championship hat on her head, “is what it's all about.”

USC freshman JuJu Watkins embraces a teammate as the Trojans celebrate winning the Pac-12 tournament title
USC players celebrate after defeating Stanford in the women's Pac-12 tournament championship game Sunday. (Ian Maule / Associated Press)

More could be on the way for USC. Not only are the Trojans in position to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and in contention for a No. 1 national seed, they have the top-ranked recruiting class for next season.

Marshall, who committed to USC under former head coach Mark Trakh but remained with her hometown school when Gottlieb was hired, knows the type of players Gottlieb wants. The first-year transfers showed it by how fiercely they competed in practice. That belief filled Marshall with optimism when she met with reporters at Park MGM for the Pac-12’s preseason media day. But five months later, wearing a championship hat and T-shirt in an arena across the Las Vegas strip, Marshall was still soaking in USC’s dizzying rise.

“A Pac-12 championship, geez,” Marshall said, “We were picked sixth. Who would ever thought that? Not even the guy who won $10,000. But we’re here now.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.