Juju Watkins powers through pain, wills Sierra Canyon girls basketball to victory at Hoophall Classic

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Juju Watkins shows why she’s the nation’s No. 1 girls basketball recruit every time she plays. Her stat lines are like something out of a video game, averaging 27 points and 15 rebounds per game this season.

The USC-bound guard has Sierra Canyon nationally ranked and unbeaten, too. Whatever the task, the opponent or stage, Watkins has delivered.

However, her biggest challenge this season came 3,000 miles away from home against the reigning national champions in Sidwell Friends from Washington, D.C., not just because of the team’s loaded roster, but because of what happened in the second quarter of an impressive 67-55 win at the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. on ESPN Saturday afternoon.

Watkins came up limping, but it turned into a one-legged skip as she got closer to the bench seeking relief. She twisted an already sore ankle that sidelined her for the last six minutes of the second quarter, which led to a rare halftime deficit (25-24).

Not a good sign. Juju Watkins came off the court limping and has been on the bench treating her ankle. Sierra Canyon’s lead is gone. Game is tied with Sidwell (D.C.) 23-23. 3:22, 2Q

— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) January 14, 2023

It didn’t look good.

“I was concerned it was her knee,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki said. “I know Juju very well, there was no drastic screaming or anything, so it made me feel better about it.”

Watkins came out of the locker room at halftime with a new challenge in front of her, one that would test her competitive spirit and pain threshold as she grimaced through double teams for two more quarters.

Once again, she delivered.

Watkins tallied 29 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 14 rebounds and 5 assists (in 26 minutes) in front of a sold-out crowd.

“It was hurting,” Watkins said. “But I knew I had to get back out there. It was a mental thing. I waited for the pain to go down.”

“This game mattered. It mattered a lot, especially as a senior. The goal is go undefeated, so every game is treated with that goal in mind, ‘We can’t lose,’” Watkins added.

Junior Mackenly Randolph notched 22 points and 14 rebounds – seven offensive – and helped to keep the game within reach while Watkins was out. Christy Reynoso hit back-to-back corner 3s (both assisted by Watkins) that helped create a 44-36 lead at the end of the third quarter.

Back-to-back 3s from Christy Reynoso, both assisted from Juju Watkins.

Sierra Canyon 44, Sidwell Friends 36. End of 3

— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) January 14, 2023

“My team held it down (while out). I’m super grateful for that,” Watkins said.

Watkins put the finishing touches on her gutty performance with a play that got the best reaction from the crowd all afternoon when she followed her own missed shot for a rebound and putback while getting fouled. As the whistle blew and the ball fell through the hoop, Watkins flexed and yelled into an ESPN camera underneath the hoop.

The play created a 61-51 lead with 1:13 to play. It was the nail in the coffin to a team ranked No. 1 (above Sierra Canyon) in various polls.

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After the game, Watkins received the Player of the Game award, which came with a gold plaque and a robe. As she stood at midcourt and the public address announcer shared her stat line over the sound system, fans gave her a standing ovation.

A small group of young kids yelled her name, “Juju, Juju!” waiving pens and papers for her autograph. The smiley superstar obliged with grace and a slight limp, signing autographs and taking selfies with fans.

“Everywhere we go, this is what it looks like,” Komaki said of the fandom of Watkins. “Kids are coming down (from the stands) asking for autographs. Adults are asking for autographs. She’s getting mobbed everywhere we go.”

Everyone wants a piece of Juju Watkins. She’s a star.

— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) January 14, 2023

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