Finally, JuJu Watkins could exhale.

When Kayla Padilla drew a foul with 14.3 seconds left and USC up by six against UCLA, Watkins, USC's star freshman, raised her arms toward the Galen Center crowd and flashed an exhausted, relieved smile. The sold-out crowd responded to its newest hometown hero by rising to its collective feet.

Watkins led the Trojans to a 73-65 victory Sunday that avenged their only loss of the year and handed their crosstown rivals their first defeat. The guard's 32 points helped the No. 9 Trojans (13-1, 3-1 Pac-12) end a nine-game losing streak to the No. 2 Bruins (14-1, 3-1 Pac-12).

The freshman from Watts carrying the weight of her city did it all. She led the team in rebounding with 10. She blocked three blocks and swiped three steals. She hustled to save balls out of bounds, throwing them backwards over her head to get USC extra possessions and she was often the first to dive on the ground.

Teammates swarmed her at the final horn. She got stuck at the bottom of the dogpile as her legs seized from cramps.

"She's a winner," USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "She just goes all out all the time, puts her body and emotional spirit on the line. … She's something else."

Watkins' fellow L.A. native, Charisma Osborne, tried to will the Bruins back from a 15-point halftime deficit. The Windward School alumna scored all 25 of her points in the second half as UCLA cut USC's lead to four in the final three minutes, but failed to get the defensive stops necessary to extend its unbeaten season.

"This one here is such a warrior," UCLA coach Cori Close said of the fifth-year guard. "There's all kinds of people that say whatever they want, but if you know basketball and you really watch our team, [she's the] heart and soul."

The last time Osborne lost to the Trojans, in 2020, it was also UCLA's first loss of the season.

USC finished the first half on a 17-3 streak, which included a stretch of nine UCLA turnovers and 15 unanswered USC points. The Bruins had 15 turnovers in the first half compared to just seven made field goals and the miscues resulted in 16 points for the Trojans, who lost 71-64 in Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 30.

"I think we stepped out today and were like, We're going to be the aggressors,' " said USC guard McKenzie Forbes, who had 18 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Close called USC "the more urgent, aggressive team." Even without All-Pac-12 forward Rayah Marshall, who was out with an illness, USC gave up only nine offensive rebounds to UCLA, which averages 16.4 per game. Clarice Akunwafo, who started in Marshall's place, had seven rebounds.

"It bothers me a lot that this game, in the first half, meant more to them than us," Close said. "It bothers me a lot. It's not the rivalry. It's a top-10 game, sold-out crowd, how can it mean more to somebody else?"

After the Bruins sold out their arena on Dec. 30, USC matched it for the first top-10 basketball game in Galen Center's history. USC great Cheryl Miller sat courtside. Rappers Chris Brown and Saweetie sat near midcourt. Candace Parker and Sparks guard Layshia Clarendon, who played for Gottlieb at California, watched from the baselines.

Fans lined up for hours before tipoff. Gottlieb took selfies with some when she arrived at 9 a.m. for shootaround. During the game, players and coaches marveled at the sight of fans seated even in the highest rows. The announced crowd of 10,258 was the largest in program history.

"This is the dream," Gottlieb said.

Said Watkins, whose red No. 12 jersey was a common accessory in the stands: "I never would have thought that it would happen so quickly."

After the game, Gottlieb addressed the crowd. She recalled a time when people said no one came to USC women's basketball games. Naysayers told recruits no one would ever watch them. Her voice broke as she looked toward the packed arena.

"I'll never forget this," Gottlieb said before saying Watkins wanted to add something.

Watkins was lying on the ground, squirting Powerade into her mouth as trainers worked on her legs with massage guns. She put her water bottle down and shouted.

"Fight on!"

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.