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Arizona must solve the puzzle of JuJu Watkins to defeat No. 10 USC

USC v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that JuJu Watkins is a problem. The freshman leads the Pac-12 and is second in the nation with 27.5 points per game. If she can maintain her pace, she will become just the third Pac-12 player to average over 25 points per game going back to at least the 2009-10 season. No freshman has accomplished it over that period. How should the Arizona Wildcats approach her?

What they don’t want to do is to approach her like Stanford did when the Women of Troy upset the Cardinal last weekend. USC defeated Stanford despite losing three players to fouls. The difference was 51 points from Watkins in a 67-58 victory. Only five of USC's buckets were assisted.

“There’s some philosophies,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “Like, let their star player score all the points, but that didn’t work because they won (against Stanford)...I don’t ever do that. It’s just not my mentality, but I’m saying if I was a team that played percentages. But then I don’t think it works with someone like her because she can score 70 points.”

Barnes is especially concerned about Watkins’ ability to get into the paint and get fouled. With Arizona’s thin frontcourt and the tendency of freshman Breya Cunningham to pick up a lot of fouls, it could be double trouble for the Wildcats.

“That’s hard because we can’t afford to do that,” Barnes said.

So, what can the Wildcats do?

“I think you have to do other things to slow her down,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s different looks defensively. I mean, you want to get the ball out of her hands. And she can score against some doubles. But she’s just really good, so I think making her work, making her defend, slowing her down is going to be important.”

Arizona will be trying to steal this game on the road, but it’s in a difficult place. The schedules for the Arizona schools have not been logical or easy this season. The only series of games that didn’t include several top 10 teams in a short amount of time was the unprecedented two straight weeks the Pac-12 sent the Arizona schools to the Pacific Northwest.

The league gave the desert teams a very unbalanced schedule for the final year in the Pac-12. Arizona and Arizona State are forced to play the Bay Area and Los Angeles schools home-and-away over the final 10 games of the regular season; they didn’t face any of the California teams early in the conference season. That means that UA and ASU play six games against top 10 teams over those last 10 games leading into the conference tournament. Three of those games are on the road.

Arizona does have the advantage of having one more player available now. Sophomore guard Kailyn Gibert played against UCLA following two weeks of non-medical absence from the court. She played 16 minutes against the Bruins, scoring 14 points.

During Gilbert’s absence, Barnes was most concerned about the possibility of a freak injury that would force Arizona to forfeit games. She has been very happy with the effort and the rapport of the seven players who have been taking the court.

With or without Gilbert, Barnes believed there was no pressure on her team when they headed out. She had been very pleased with the cohesiveness and fight of the group of seven other players. She also knows that with Gilbert, the Wildcats have pulled a big upset and played some other top teams close, but the most important thing during their time with seven players was how they interacted as a group.

“Except for the Stanford game, we played better against better competition,” Barnes said. “If you saw how we played Colorado, the Utah game, I think we played really well...So I think that we’re ready and I think that we’re confident. I think the group is really enjoying each other. And if you watch us in practice, they’re happy. They’re young, they’re not afraid, and they’re playing like they have nothing to lose. So I love where we’re at. I love our mentality. I love where we are just as a group, I’m enjoying them.”

Arizona Wildcats (12-11, 4-7) @ No. 10 USC Women of Troy (17-4, 7-4)

When: Monday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. MST

Where: Galen Center in Los Angeles, Calif.


Streaming: Watch ESPN

Radio: Varsity Network

Stats: USC Live Stats

Standings and rankings: USC is alone in fifth in the conference and can move into a tie for fourth with a win. A loss would allow Utah to move into a tie for fifth. UA has sole possession of eighth in the conference. With a win, it would move into a tie for seventh; a loss would allow Washington State to tie the Wildcats for eighth.

USC is ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 11 in the coaches poll. It is No. 16 in the NET.

Arizona is not ranked in the major polls. It is No. 44 in the NET.

Probabilities and odds: FanDuel has USC as the 11.5-point favorite. The O/U is 131.5.

Her Hoop Stats gives USC an 80.5 percent win probability. They are projected to win by 9.9 points and the point total is set at 130.3.

Massey Ratings have USC favored with a 63 percent win probability. The most likely score is set at 68-63.

How to follow along

Follow us on X (Twitter) @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of women’s basketball games and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.