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Let’s spend an evening with JuJu Watkins in the NCAA tournament

Let’s spend an evening with JuJu Watkins in the NCAA tournament

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

PORTLAND, Ore. — JuJu Watkins is on a never-ending search for space. It continued at Moda Center on Saturday. The stakes, this time, were only Southern California’s whole season, with Baylor in between the Trojans and the Elite Eight. So Watkins, the dead center of attention — the sort of player who draws attention by walking — kept looking for what stars are never given.

A little room to operate. A little air to breathe.

Off the court, forget it. Earlier this season, when USC was in Colorado, a fan stood outside the team bus, looking for the freshman’s autograph. Yet when Watkins went to sign it, 50 more people rushed down a hill, hoping for a small piece of her. Or how about earlier this week, on the team’s first day in Portland, when Watkins crammed in the back of a van on the way to practice. Her knees folded up to her chest. Seniority rules.

But 40 minutes against Baylor weren’t any easier. The fifth-seeded Bears led by two with four minutes left. The top-seeded Trojans were tight. Watkins, at that point, was 7 for 26 from the field and 2 for 10 from three. Then she drove, sucked in the defense and dished to Clarice Akunwafo for a lay-in. Then she grabbed a board, burst to the open court and … there it was.

Space — a ton of it — even as three defenders chased her. Watkins bumped Sara Andrews, heard a whistle and flicked the ball off the glass and in. She sat on the floor, screaming, then completed a three-point play with a free throw. USC didn’t trail again in a 74-70 win.

“Even though I had 30, it wasn’t my best night,” said Watkins, who scored 12 of those 30 points at the foul line. She added six rebounds, four assists and four blocks. “But honestly, just doing what to win, I think that’s my priority always.”

An hour before the tip, the way to spot Watkins was by finding the cameras. Calf raises, leg lifts — none of that’s interesting when done by most people. But when Watkins raises her calves, when she lifts her legs, someone films, then someone else watches the clip in a television truck, then maybe a lot more someones see it in their living rooms. While the cameraman crouched to the floor, she fixed her eyes straight ahead. She’s 18 and already used to nonstop attention. She’s the polar opposite of fazed.

And once the team drills finished, Watkins sank into her own routine. Standing on the baseline, two steps behind the block, she took 37 set shots, slowly inching back. At one point, despite seven different balls flying at the rim, Watkins made 14 in a row. It felt like some sort of magic track. So, too, did walk-on India Otto making sure there was always a ball in Watkins’s hands. Eventually, Watkins moved behind the three-point line, shooting corner threes. After that, she crawled toward the wing, mixing in one-dribble pull-ups.

When her teammates headed to the locker room, she hung behind. She bricked a layup and laughed. She wouldn’t leave until she made a deep three, which took three tries. Then she jogged in with Otto, just not before nodding to the crowd — to a man yelling “JuJu!” — and giving high-fives to three young fans.

Watkins was the show. It started in 26 minutes.

“The poise is innate for her,” USC Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “You know, we track [heart rate and workload] with their Catapults and all that. And she plays so hard. She’s always exerting the most energy. But in terms of — you can measure someone’s pulse — she just is even-keeled.”

At 6-foot-2, Watkins is never the tallest player on the court. She is never the fastest or loudest, either. But she is always the center of gravity, the player who dictates the pace and the rhythm and the score. Two possessions into the game, she had two points on a layup off a backdoor cut. Two possessions later, a Baylor assistant yelled at Bella Fontleroy, who was tasked with guarding Watkins: “I don’t want you like this! I want you up on her!”

But Fontleroy couldn’t keep Watkins from touching the ball. Watkins did in almost every half-court set, often starting on the left side of the court (where she also took a bulk of her warmup shots). At the end of the first, she looked frustrated, no matter that she scored eight points by making half her shots. In the second, three clawing defenders smothered her in the paint. Somehow, she both kept the ball and dribbled to the perimeter. Then Watkins shook loose for a pull-up jumper from the wing.

“I can trust her with my life,” junior forward Rayah Marshall said. “Like, when it comes down to winning, she is going to do what she has to do. She’s coming into the huddle after the third quarter, fired up, like: ‘Let’s get our s—’ — sorry about that. Well, that’s what she said.”

Down the stretch, Baylor surging, Gottlieb called Watkins over for a quick chat. At the start of March Madness, Gottlieb was watching games when she tuned out an AT&T commercial. Joel Embiid sat in a barbershop chair. But then, right there on the screen, was Watkins, too. How often, Gottlieb thought, is the reigning NBA MVP in an ad with a college kid? How cool.

Still, Gottlieb says Watkins is not a reality star who hoops. She is, rather, a devoted hooper with lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, the lot of them making her famous. In an hour, once USC had held Baylor off, Watkins would head to meet her family in the sixth row behind the scorer’s table. She would sign an old sneaker, a mini basketball and a few scraps of paper. She took six selfies. For every step, she had to greet adoring fans.

First, though, there was a basketball game to win. Watkins and Gottlieb talked by USC’s bench, Gottlieb’s arm around her player’s waist. This was right before the pivotal three-point play. What was the message, then, that sparked a final push?

“I’m not going to lie, I don’t really remember,” Watkins said from the podium, Gottlieb laughing to her left. Turns out, Gottlieb had asked Watkins how she could help her find better spots to score from. The search for space continued. They would figure it out together.

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