Juju Watkins showcases what she'll bring to USC at Chosen 1's Invitational

Juju Watkins showcases what she'll bring to USC at Chosen 1's Invitational

The time, Lindsay Gottlieb said, was now.

With the unveiling of a poster, one teary-eyed Chatsworth Sierra Canyon senior and a recruitment announcement that would shape the future of USC women’s basketball, a sudden sense of urgency descended on Galen Center.

The Trojans coach “cried like a baby” when she found out the top recruit in the nation was staying home.

Juju Watkins was coming. And it changed everything.

“We’re not waiting,” Gottlieb said, “to make this building exciting.”

Maya Moore. Diana Taurasi. Watkins, the 6-foot-2 Sierra Canyon senior, conjures memories of WNBA greats for the USC coaching staff. And, parked on the Galen Center baseline for Sierra Canyon’s 64-55 win over San Diego’s La Jolla Country Day on Saturday night, Gottlieb and assistant Beth Burns had a chance to see their program’s future develop before their very eyes: the stop-and-pop jumpers, the unrelenting motor in transition, the third-quarter putback of her own missed layup to put Sierra Canyon ahead by 10.

Sierra Canyon's Juju Watkins (12) drives with the ball on a fast break against La Jolla Country Day on Saturday.

Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins (12) drives with the ball on a fast break against La Jolla Country Day on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m different, yeah I’m different,” 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different” blared over the speakers after that Watkins putback.

“Every year, there’s a best player,” Burns said earlier in the afternoon, sitting next to Gottlieb. “Every year, there’s not a Juju.”

Watkins scored 30 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the LeBron James-sponsored Chosen 1’s Invitational to keep the Torreys at bay, taking a whopping 28 shots. La Jolla Country Day threw everything it had in its utility belt at Watkins, sending multiple bodies at her in transition, only for her to pick herself up, dust herself off and nail jumper after jumper off a pick-and-roll.

“There was no roll,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki laughed in a postgame news conference. “Just a pick.”

Watkins, her parents said, didn’t know which school she was committing to until two weeks before her announcement in mid-November. It would’ve been easy for her to commit to South Carolina, to another top-ranked program, Gottlieb said. Instead, the kid who grew up in Watts and has spoken tearfully of her “L.A. legacy,” picked USC, a program that went 12-16 last season and hasn’t finished atop its conference in two decades.

It took “courage,” Gottlieb said, to step out of the norm. To want to build a legacy from the ground up. To be the rose — in a saying the USC coach quickly learned is a favorite of Watkins’ — that grew from the concrete.

“I think it’s a huge responsibility that we all feel … she should make L.A. and USC women’s basketball the place to be,” said Gottlieb, who captained an 11-3 USC team this season.

Watkins said after the game the night only made her more comfortable in her decision. There, sitting courtside, was USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and incoming quarterback Malachi Nelson. There, in the stands, was a group of fans, each of whom held up pieces of a “We [Heart] Juju” sign. There was a building electrified, a Galen Center that roared “Ooooh!” after Watkins’ third-quarter spin move to leave a defender in the dust.

“I haven’t been this excited for a game in a long, long time … I had to remind myself, this is still business, you need to relax,” a beaming Watkins said afterward.

Sierra Canyon's Juju Watkins shoots over La Jolla Country Day's Brea Cunningham during the Chosen 1's Invitational.

Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins shoots over La Jolla Country Day’s Brea Cunningham during the Chosen 1’s Invitational Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Particularly important business. Because La Jolla Country Day was the toughest team the Trailblazers had faced yet in a tougher-than-ever Sierra Canyon schedule, point guard and Arizona commit Jada Williams scoring 19 points with a variety of screaming fist-pumps after huge threes.

And Watkins seemed to force shots early, hunting jumpers against a Torreys defense employing the length of Breya Cunningham, an Arizona commit whom Komaki called the “best center in the country.” On moves, Watkins acknowledged after the game, she’d often forget there was a 6-foot-4 player lurking in the paint. And through just six minutes, she was dripping with sweat.

Perhaps the least-discussed part of Watkins’ game, her tenacity, stood out Saturday night. She scrapped like a go-to-scorer’s version of Patrick Beverley, following her own shots, hunting contact.

Mackenly Randolph fought off Cunningham with 11 points and nine rebounds down low, while freshman center Emilia Krstevski held her own with 10 points and eight boards.

It was just enough to push Sierra Canyon to a sterling 16-0.

After the game, Watkins lamented she didn’t have a chance to say hi to Gottlieb. Komaki, though, did.

“She said,” Komaki grinned, “‘Juju looks good here.’”

Other standouts: Santa Ana Mater Dei junior Jennessa Cotton dominated in the post to lead the Monarchs to a 62-30 win over St. Vincent-St. Mary of Ohio, posting a double-double with 13 rebounds and 13 points. The Monarchs boys’ game against the Fighting Irish was significantly closer, but the youth movement eked out a 63-61 win on the back of freshman Luke Barnett, who buried five threes en route to 21 points.

Sierra Canyon boys defeat Wheeler

Sierra Canyon forward Ashton Hardaway shoots against Wheeler during the The Chosen 1's Invitational.

Sierra Canyon forward Ashton Hardaway shoots against Wheeler during the The Chosen 1’s Invitational at Galen Center on Saturday night.

(Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There was no way around it. A Sierra Canyon boys’ team known for its flash, for its highlights, for the celebrity that follows, was going to have to get gritty Saturday night, assistant coach Chris Howe said.

The Trailblazers were taking on nationally-ranked Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler, a team that Howe said, simply had “dudes.”

“They have shooters that could knock in 15 of 30 threes,” Howe said, “and then we’re done.”

Two of those dudes, in fact, were playing at their future stomping grounds — seniors Isaiah Collier and Arrington Page. But after Sierra Canyon fell behind by double digits early, its move-on-a-string defense overwhelmed the prized recruits and Wheeler in a 66-55 win — perhaps the Trailblazers’ best of the season.

The team down by eight at halftime, Sierra Canyon’s staff “challenged” senior Ashton Hardaway, coach Andre Chevalier said after the game. And Hardaway — son of former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway and a Memphis commit — responded with perhaps his best all-around half as a Trailblazer, getting aggressive on the glass and banging down low with Page.

“I had to wake up, definitely, as a leader,” Hardaway said.

It was his range, though, that propelled him to 18 points and a pair of massive third-quarter threes to pull Sierra Canyon back into the game, Hardaway barking at any Wheeler defender within earshot while backpedaling down the floor. And after a quiet first half, Bronny James continued to show an improved sense of the moment in his senior year, detonating for 17 fourth-quarter points.

“Everybody in the locker room has confidence in him,” Chevalier said of James. “Ashton trusts him. I trust him. And if he really just starts trusting himself, I just think the sky is the limit for us.”

Collier finished with 17 points but was held by James, Isaiah Elohim and a horde of Trailblazers wing defenders to five-for-16 shooting. Page, who Chevalier called “the most skilled player that we’ve played all year long,” finished with just eight points and seven rebounds.