Watkins makes history, but stung by Trojans loss

PORTLAND, Ore. — USC standout JuJu Watkins made history Monday night, passing Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State back in 1983-84 to become the all-time leading scorer among freshmen in NCAA Division I history. However, the game ended in tears as the Trojans’ bid to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1986 was stopped by UConn, who won the Regional 3 final 80-73.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Watkins said of passing Hutchinson. “I mean, of course, like I said, not really the terms I would like to end on. On my season, I mean, I’m just blessed.

“This program has offered me a lot. I’m so grateful for it. It’s just been a great season. The record is great. Just the moments that I’ve got to spend with this team have meant everything to me. I’m just excited for next year.”

Hutchinson’s record of 898 points, set in the third season the NCAA sponsored women’s basketball, had stood for four decades before Watkins became the first freshman in Division I to top 900 points. Watkins’ 29 points on Monday gave her 920 for the season.

In four NCAA tournament games, Watkins finished with 110 points, one shy of the freshman record of 111 set by Tamika Catchings during Tennessee‘s six-game title run in 1998, per ESPN Stats & Information.

But Watkins’ heroics weren’t enough against a more experienced UConn team Monday. With guards Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl as the primary defenders on her, the Huskies held Watkins to 9-of-25 (36%) shooting. ESPN Stats & Information tracking found Watkins shot 5-of-16 (31%) on contested attempts.

Nonetheless, UConn coach Geno Auriemma called Watkins “probably as difficult a matchup as there is, or has been, for our players.”

Auriemma, who reached his 23rd Final Four as coach of the Huskies, shared a moment with a disappointed Watkins in the postgame handshake line. He joked to reporters that he had encouraged Watkins — who will not be eligible for the WNBA draft until after her senior season in 2027 under the league’s current rules — to explore professional opportunities overseas or in the Big3 league.

“She was very emotional,” Auriemma said. “She was crying, like all competitors. She put her heart and soul into this. I just reminded her, ‘You had an amazing year. Your team wouldn’t be here without you.'”

Trojans coach Lindsay Gottlieb pointed out to reporters that Watkins had made her commitment to USC in November 2022, when the school was coming off a 12-16 record in Gottlieb’s first season. With Watkins in the fold, along with three Ivy League grad transfers in the starting five, this year’s Trojans won their first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014 and reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994.

Now, Gottlieb expects Watkins to channel the sadness of Monday night’s loss into an even stronger sophomore campaign.

“I’ve only ever seen her respond to anything adverse in incredibly positive ways,” Gottlieb said. “She works harder than anyone I know. Her mind is always in the right place. She’s going to have to take on some different things, right? Now it’s team, leadership, things that aren’t basketball related. I’m excited for her to really walk into everything that’s coming for her. There’s no question in my mind, you give her something adverse, she’s going to use that just to get better.

“As [teammate McKenzie Forbes] said, that’s a little scary for everyone else.”

Watkins echoed that notion, vowing to get better ahead of her sophomore campaign.

“I think just coming up short, that adds a lot of fuel to the fire for the next couple years,” Watkins said. “I’m just excited to go back home and get in the gym now. I’m really focused on learning from this season as a whole, things I can improve on. Definitely my efficiency and stuff like that.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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