the time, Lindsey Gottlieb He said, it was now.
The Trojans coach “cried like a baby” when she found out the best recruits in the country would be staying home.
Jojo Watkins was coming. And it changed everything.
“We’re not waiting to make this building exciting,” Gottlieb said.
Maya Moore. Diana Taurasi. Watkins, the 6-foot-2, the 6-foot-2 Sierra Canyon champ, evokes memories of USC’s World Series basketball greats. And while standing on the baseline at the Galen Center for Sierra Canyon’s 64-55 win over San Diego La Jolla Country Day Saturday night, Gottlieb and assistant Beth Burns had the opportunity to see the future of their program develop before their eyes: stop-and-pop jumpers, relentless movers In transition, a third-quarter slam dunk on a missed layup put Sierra Canyon ahead by 10.
“I’m different, yeah I’m different,” 2 Chainz’s “I’m different” surged over the speakers after Watkins backed off.
“Every year, there’s an MVP,” Burns said earlier in the afternoon, sitting next to Gottlieb. “Every year, there is no Jojo.”
Watkins scored 30 points and grabbed 18 rebounds LeBron James-Chosen 1’s Invitational backed to keep Torreys at bay, taking an astonishing 28 shots. La Jolla Country Day threw everything it had into its utility belt at Watkins, sending several bodies into it in transition, only for it to pick itself up, dust itself off, and nail itself after jumping off a Pick-and-Roll.
“There was no roll,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki laughed in a post-game news conference. “Just pick.”
Her parents said Watkins did not know which school she would commit to until two weeks before the mid-November announcement. It would have been easy for her to commit to South Carolina, Gottlieb said, to another top-ranked program. Instead, he picked the kid who grew up in Watts and tearfully spoke of his “L.A. legacy,” the USC program, which last season went 12-16 and hasn’t finished at the top of its conference in two decades.
Gottlieb said it took “courage” to break the rules. Desire to build a legacy from the ground up. To be the rose—in a saying the USC coach quickly learned was Watkins’ favorite—that grew out of concrete.
“I think it’s a huge responsibility that we all feel…you have to make Los Angeles and USC women’s basketball the right place,” said Gottlieb, who led an 11-3 USC team this season.
Watkins said after the game that the night made her feel more comfortable with her decision. There, sitting on the court, was USC Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams And the next quarterback Malachi Nelson. There was, in the stands, a group of fans, each holding bits of “Us.” [Heart] Jojo sign. There was an electrified building, Galen’s center roaring “Ooooh!” After Watkins moved in the third quarter to leave the defender in the dust.
A jubilant Watkins said afterwards: “I haven’t been so excited about a game in a very long time… I had to remind myself, this is still work, you need to relax.”
Particularly important work. As La Jolla Country Day was the toughest team the Trailblazers have faced yet in a tighter Sierra Canyon schedule than ever, point guard and Arizona feat Jada Williams scored 19 with a variety of roaring fist pumps after massive threes.
Watkins seemed to force the shots early on, catching jumpers against the Torrez defense using the length of Breya Cunningham, an Arizona one whom Komaki called “the best center in the country.” In terms of moves, Watkins admitted after the game, that she often forgot there was a 6-foot-4 player lurking in the paint. And in just six minutes, she was sweating.
Perhaps the least discussed part of Watkins’ game, her tenacity, came to the fore on Saturday night. She scrapped like a go-to scorer’s version of Patrick Beverly, after her own shots, and a contact catch.
McKinley Randolph beat Cunningham with 11 points and nine rebounds, while player Emilia Krstevsky kept her tally with ten points and eight boards.
That was enough to propel Sierra Canyon to Sterling 16-0.
After the match, Watkins lamented that she did not get the chance to say hi to Gottlieb. But Komaki did.
“She said,” Komaki smiled, “Juju looks good here.”
Other features: Santa Ana mater Dei jennessa Cotton dominated center field to lead the Monarchs to a 62-30 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Vincent-St. Marie, from Ohio, posted a double-double with 13 rebounds and 13 points. The Monarchs’ game against the Fighting Irish was much closer, but the youth action cruised to a 63-61 victory on the back of freshman Luke Barnett, who buried five tackles on his way to 21 points.
The Sierra Canyon Boys defeat Wheeler
There was no way around it. The Sierra Canyon boys’ team known for its blinkers, highlights, and celebrity following will have to brave Saturday night, said Sierra Canyon assistant coach Chris Howe.
The Trailblazers were up against nationally ranked Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler, a team Howe said, simply had “the guys.”
“They have pitchers who can knock 15 out of 30 threes,” Howe said, “and then we’re done.”
In fact, two of those guys were playing for their future hometowns – seniors Isaiah Collier and Arrington Page. But after Sierra Canyon trailed by double digits early on, their sloppy defense outlasted the high-flying recruits and Wheeler in a 66-55 win—perhaps the Trailblazers’ best of the season.
The team was down by eight minutes at the end of the first half, coach Andre Chevalier said after the game, and Sierra Canyon staff challenged Ashton Hardaway. And Hardaway—the son of former NBA player Benny Hardaway and a Memphis quarterback—responded with perhaps his best half all around as the Trailblazer, getting aggressive on the glass and hitting hard with Paige.
“I definitely had to get up as a leader,” said Hardaway.
It was his range, though, that drove him to 18 points and a pair of massive threes in the third quarter to pull Sierra Canyon back into the game, with Hardaway barking at any Wheeler defender in earshot as he backed off the ground. And after a quiet first half, Broni James continued to show an even better sense of the moment his senior year, tallying 17 fourth-quarter points.
“Everyone in the locker room trusts him,” Chevalier said of James. Ashton trusts him. I trust him. And if he really starts to trust himself, I just think the sky’s the limit for us.”
Collier finished with 17 points but was held up by James, Isaiah Elohim, and hordes of trailblazer wing defenders to five-for-16. Paige, whom Chevalier called “the most skilful player we’ve played all year,” finished with just eight points and seven rebounds.
This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.