On senior night, Juju Watkins scores a career-high 60 points for Sierra Canyon
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 Sierra Canyon senior was looking for 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 in a wide-open paint, so surely her 20th point of the night, that the unexpected dish just sailed over everyone’s head.
In an eventual 88-39 win Tuesday night over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Watkins tried to move the ball around. She really did. Even to the point of passing up shots.
She finished the game with 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, the Trailblazers down 7-0 to start. Coach Alicia Komaki committed to playing her five seniors in Watkins, Ruelas, Crystal Wang, Natasha Bay and Alissa Evangelista for the entirety of the program’s senior night, benching usual starters Mackenly Randolph and Izela Arenas, and it quickly turned into a sort of thought experiment for those cheering in attendance.
Could Watkins, the transcendent USC commit, 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 swelling to their feet. Anticipating the unthinkable.
Komaki grinned, placing a hand to her forehead. The gym erupted. Lindsay Gottleib, head coach of USC women’s hoops, had come to see Watkins on her senior night, and she sat wide-eyed in her courtside seat at halftime as the home crowd buzzed.
It was an energy for Watkins, Gottleib said, that she’d only seen 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, she never left the floor in the second half as the Trailblazers built an eventual 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 already 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.”
When asked about the thought process behind leaving Watkins in the game, Komaki clarified that Watkins was a regular starter and none of her seniors came off the court, except for a brief period in the second quarter. She followed with a longer response about an hour later.
“If you want to question my level of sportsmanship, look at my track record,” Komaki 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,” Komaki continued, “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.”