What's next for JuJu Watkins and USC: 'We're not trying to be a one-hit wonder'

She steeled herself, wiped her tears and took the dais. JuJu Watkins answered the first question without a hitch after USC’s season ended abruptly on Monday in the Elite Eight with a loss to Connecticut. But it was the mention of her teammates that finally broke the freshman.

USC’s star guard buried her face in her hands as she thanked “the best teammates in the world.” She tried to say more. She stopped herself as her voice grew thicker with emotion.

Guard McKenzie Forbes, seated to her left, patted Watkins on the leg. Like she had been all season, the graduate transfer from Harvard was there for support.

The unique blend of the freshman’s star power with mature upperclassmen was just as critical to USC’s best season in decades as Watkins’ immense talent. The Sierra Canyon product will remain the face of USC’s continued resurgence as the Trojans welcome the No. 1 recruiting class in the country next year, but the six seniors who supported Watkins won’t be forgotten either.

“They have completely changed a narrative about a program,” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “That’s really powerful. The way that the country’s going to see USC women’s basketball is really different than it was four months ago. … I think their legacy is that they got us somewhere. Now it’s on all of us to say, ‘What’s next?’

“We’re not trying to be a one-hit wonder.”

Gottlieb called this season “the standard.” The Trojans (29-6) had their winningest season since 1985-86, when Cheryl Miller led the team to the national championship game and a 31-5 record. Every week seemed to bring a new reason to look through the dormant powerhouse’s record books: the first sold-out crowd in program history, the first road sweep of Stanford and California since 2001, the first Pac-12 title since 2014.

Falling one win short of the program’s first Final Four appearance since Miller’s senior season adds “that chip on our shoulder,” forward Clarice Akunwafo said.

“We know what to do and we know what it takes to get here,” the junior said. “We’re going to for sure use that as fuel for next season.”

Less than 30 minutes after the game, Watkins was already plotting things to improve. The 18-year-old who had the most prolific scoring season for a Division 1 freshman said she is eyeing better efficiency. Watkins shot 40.1% from the field and 31.9% from three-point range, but struggled with her shot late in the season. She was 10-for-46 shooting from three during the postseason.

“I’m just grateful for this year,” Watkins said, “because I’ve learned a lot.”

USC freshman JuJu Watkins, center, celebrates in the final seconds of an NCAA tournament win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

USC and JuJu Watkins had plenty to celebrate this season, reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Watkins had ideal teachers in a large group of seniors. Guards India Otto and Kayla Williams returned from last season while Forbes, Roxane Makolo, Kaitlyn Davis and Kayla Padilla joined through the transfer portal. Forbes, who was named to the Portland 3 Region all-tournament team along with Watkins and USC junior forward Rayah Marshall, was “like Yoda,” Watkins said.

“She’s always just encouraging me and really speaking to me in times when I need it during the game,” the freshman said after USC’s Sweet 16 win over Baylor. “She’s just a great leader. And I’m just glad to have that type of leadership my first year.”

From being a fearless, carefree freshman, Watkins will now need to take a larger leadership role. Entering Gottlieb’s fourth season, the Trojans are shifting their rebuilding strategy from ready-made transfers to developing their own talent with all six players in the incoming recruiting class ranked in ESPN’s top 100.

The Times’ high school player of the year Kennedy Smith leads the next wave of Trojans. Smith, a star at Etiwanda High who averaged 19.4 points and 7.8 rebounds while leading the Eagles to Southern Section and state open division championships, wing Avery Howell and point guard Kayleigh Heckel were McDonald’s All-Americans.

Forwards Vivian Iwuchukwu and Laura Williams and guard Rian Forestier round out the group.

“To have players like JuJu who have immensely matured through the season, it’s only going to continue to grow, and obviously a really exciting recruiting class,” said Padilla, who averaged 7.8 points and 42.8% shooting from three-point range during her one season with the Trojans. “But I think the culture that veterans helped infuse into this program this year, I think it’ll really last. I think if it continues to sustain, that this group will be right back here next year and continuing even further.”

The sound of velcro ripping reverberated through the stunned, silent locker room when Padilla peeled the nameplate off her locker. She tucked the keepsake into her backpack. She can’t wait to cheer from the stands next time.

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