USC shocks Stanford to capture first Pac-12 tournament title in a decade

Players in this post:
JuJu Watkins

No. 5 USC Trojans defeat No.2 Stanford Cardinal 74-61, earning their second and final Pac-12 championship.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 10: The USC Trojans pose for the media after defeating the Stanford Cardinal 74-61 in the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)

What a fitting farewell to the Pac-12 Championship.

Under head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, the USC Trojans secured the Pac-12 Championship, marking their first conference victory in ten years. Despite Stanford being the favored team, USC took an early lead and maintained their momentum throughout. Demonstrating their strongest win percentage since the 1993-1994 season, the Trojans have consistently impressed with their physical prowess throughout the season. It's been a real honor to watch them this season.

It all began with a three-pointer sunk by Senior guard McKenzie Forbes. As a first-year transfer from Harvard University, and formerly Cal, Forbes scored a game-high 26 points, making 11 out of 21 field goals and hitting 4 out of 8 three-point attempts. Additionally, she grabbed five rebounds, two of which were on the offensive end, and contributed two assists along with three steals.

McKenzie Forbes was an unstoppable force

On Dec. 21, the senior scored a career-high 36 points against Long Beach State, and came up immense in the most unforgettable moment, the Pac-12 championship.

Clearly emotional after the game, Forbes was truly unstoppable all over both ends of the court. Steals and pull up threes, the senior was locked in. Second on the roster in scoring with 13.1 points per game, Forbes was the glue that secured USC their final ever Pac-12 championship. And with her stellar game play, the California native was named the conference MVP.

Surrounded by reporters, Forbes gave an tearful interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe on the court. In her post game speech, the senior shed tears, yet was visibly passionate about her team's victory.

"I just love my teammates man," Forbes told Rowe via ESPN. "We deserve this, we worked so hard. We locked in on the game plan and nobody believed we would win this and we did it."

USC impressed without their biggest star

What stands out about this victory is that USC managed to defeat the second-ranked team in the nation, despite freshman standout JuJu Watkins having an off night. With a shooting performance of just 2-15 from the floor, Watkins ended the game with a season-low nine points, along with one block, one assist, and three rebounds in 39 minutes of play. While this performance is uncharacteristic for the freshman, it underscores USC's ability to remain a strong force, even when key players face challenges.

As a result, the Trojans had just two bench players, Clarice Akunwafo and Kayla Williams, who together scored 10 points. Kayla Padilla, who previously transferred from Penn State, scored 13 points with a 50 percent shooting accuracy from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, junior center Rayah Marshall led the game with 18 rebounds and also contributed 10 points. Notably, Marshall secured five of her rebounds on the offensive end.

And for USC, it's not about who scores the most collective points. Truly a team effort, the USC Trojans were never favored to win the conference title.

"We love basketball, and that's the best part about this team," Forbes told ESPN's Holly Rowe. "No one cares who gets a shine. No one cares who scores 50, who scores zero. We have people who play their role, who just go out there and rebound. It doesn't matter, we just want to win."

USC dominated on the rebounds

Speaking of rebounds, acting as a strong force on the glass was the difference maker for the USC. By out rebounding Stanford 48-28, there were a plethora of second chance opportunities, along with 21 points off turnovers. There's outplaying a team on the glass, and then there's completely dominating a team on the rebounds. In USC's case, it was a display of absolute masterclass on the rebounds.

What an incredible freshman season it's been for Watkins. The next generational talent, she led the Trojans with 27 points per game, and broke several records in her first season. In fact, the Sierra Canyon product is now the most scoring freshman in NCAA women's basketball history. While Caitlin Clark finished with 799 points following her freshman year, Watkins is at 801.

An integral part of the Trojans success this season, Watkins poured in 33 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and two steals in the Pac-12 semifinal against no. 7 UCLA. Making history all season long, the guard broke Cheryl Miller's record for the most 30-point games in a season for the USC Trojans.

USC defeated Stanford twice this year

Despite being ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 this season, the Cardinal suffered only five losses, one of which was against USC on Feb. 2, with a final score of 67-58. In a remarkable display, JuJu Watkins made history by becoming the first Division 1 freshman to score 50 points in a game since Elena Delle Donne in 2010. With an impressive 51 points, she propelled the Trojans to their first victory at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal's home court, in 24 years.

While USC has long demonstrated their ability to compete with Stanford and head coach Tara VanDerveer, it's Stanford that has largely dominated the Pac-12, clinching five conference titles since 2015. Despite USC's recent championship win, it marks a significant shift in the landscape of one of women's basketball's most competitive conferences. With VanDerveer's influence shaping the trajectory of women's hoops, this victory undoubtedly evokes a range of emotions. Two notable sentiments include disappointment and sadness.

With 12 teams part of the Pac-12, USC will move to the Big Ten, along with UCLA next season. Meanwhile, while Arizona, Utah, among others, will join the Big 12. Stanford, along with Cal, will join the ACC. The irony in this all? The Pac-12 is one of the strongest conferences in women's basketball history, including six ranked teams. Cameron Brink, JuJu Watkins, Alissa Pili, the list goes on. The amount of talent in the Pac-12 is enormous, and it will indefinitely be missed.

In a bittersweet day, the USC Trojans will move onto the NCAA tournament, where they will receive a chance to compete for a National Championship title.

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Sara Jane Gamelli is a full-time Sportswriter, Content Creator and Social Media Manager for Ballislife Bets. She has a focus on the NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball, and the NFL. Sara Jane currently resides in Connecticut/NYC area with her Cat and Dog. SJ has her undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut in Economics, with a minor in business administration.


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