In the second quarter of a three-point game, the best girls’ basketball player in the country caught a pass under a wide-open rim, took a dribble and gathered.
Juju Watkins passed the ball.
Passed the ball, in fact, to nobody. The Chatsworth Sierra Canyon star was looking for fellow senior Sofia Ruelas, because it was senior night, and Watkins wanted to try to get her teammates some points. But the layup for Watkins looked so inevitable, so sure, that the unexpected dish just sailed over everyone’s head.
In an eventual 88-39 win over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame on Tuesday night, Watkins tried to move the ball around. She really did. Even to the point of passing up shots.
She still finished with a career-high 60 points.
“My shot was undeniable,” Watkins said.
That much was clear three minutes into the game, when Watkins connected on a three from the right wing. Coach Alicia Komaki committed to playing her five seniors in Watkins, Ruelas, Crystal Wang, Natasha Bay and Alissa Evangelista almost the whole game, benching usual starters Mackenly Randolph and Izela Arenas, and it quickly raised a question:
Could Watkins, the transcendent USC commit, essentially win a game by herself?
And with time winding down in the first half and her shot pure, Watkins pulled up from well beyond the right-wing three-point line, just inside halfcourt. Swish. The very next possession, she dribbled up in transition to the same exact spot, set her feet and launched, a crowd of friends and family rising to their feet. Anticipating the unthinkable.
Komaki grinned, placing a hand to her forehead. The gym erupted. Lindsay Gottleib, coach of USC women’s team, had come to see Watkins and sat wide-eyed in her courtside seat as the home crowd buzzed.
It was an energy for Watkins, Gottleib said, that she’d seen only from her time as an assistant with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, watching Kevin Durant or LeBron James warm up.
“She’s like a video game,” Gottleib said, smiling.
A video game that never turned off.
Amid a slew of jumpers, putbacks and free throws, Watkins never left the floor in the second half as the Trailblazers built a 40-point lead. Her 50th point, coming on another three-pointer seconds after a layup, was an inevitability. Her 60th point, coming late in the fourth quarter, was the finishing touch.
The scoring display, however, left the Notre Dame girls with long faces and a few comments on social media questioning why Watkins wasn’t removed earlier. By the third quarter, Sierra Canyon had built an insurmountable lead.
“Do whatever you want to do,” Notre Dame coach Paul Gross said, when asked if Watkins not being taken out rubbed him the wrong way. “I don’t worry about what the other team does … you wonder, do they risk injury that way, but that’s not my decision.”
Asked about leaving Watkins in the game, Komaki clarified that she was a starter and none of her seniors came off the court, except for a brief period in the second quarter.
“If you want to question my level of sportsmanship, look at my track record,” Komaki later wrote in a text. “We generally take starters out, we don’t press, we have scored over 100 once in my 11 years …”
“We always do things by the ‘book of sportsmanship’ so if this rubs someone the wrong way, I take responsibility and will ask for forgiveness if Juju finishing a game on the court after scoring 60 was anything other than five seniors playing together on senior night.”