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Juju Watkins’ commitment could transform USC basketball

JuJu Watkins, a 2023 USC signee, is one of three finalists for the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year award. (Jason Armond/Getty Images)

Juju Watkins is staying home.

One of the top recruits in the class of 2023 announced her decision to play college basketball at the University of Southern California on Tuesday. Watkins grew up just 10 minutes from the USC campus, and her family, she said, was the main reason for staying close to home.

Watkins took great care with her decision, which she announced in front of her friends and classmates at Sierra Canyon.

“I didn’t want to rush this process,” Watkins told ESPN. “A lot of people in my class had already committed before me, and I definitely was taking my time. But I want to make sure it was 1,000% where I wanted to go.”

She chose the Trojans over current women’s basketball powerhouses South Carolina and Stanford, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP Top 25. USC is unranked.

With the Cardinal or the Gamecocks, Watkins would be stepping into a team that is already built for NCAA titles. With USC, she will be a part of the building process. In fact, Watkins will be the central building block for a historic Trojans program that hasn’t been in conversation with elite teams for quite some time.

But Watkins changes that, almost instantly.

“Juju is the best and most decorated player of her class both in the country and internationally, ” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said in a press release. “I could talk for days about her skill set: her shot-making ability, creativity to the rim, dominance on the boards, defensive tenacity and her elite court vision.

“But what I am most excited about is that JuJu the human being is joining the USC family. This is a young woman with transcendent talent, but she is also uniquely motivated. She is about things bigger than herself: her family, her team, her community, her city. Juju had the courage to stay home and is driven to bring USC women’s basketball back to prominence. What a monumental day for all of us in the Trojan family.”

USC was a powerhouse in the 1980s, with All-Americans Cheryl Miller, Paula McGee and Rhonda Windham leading the Trojans to an NCAA championship in 1983. They repeated the feat in 1984.

But recent women’s basketball history has belonged to teams like UConn and Baylor, as well as the last two teams competing with USC for Watkins – South Carolina and Stanford. The Trojans haven’t made an NCAA tournament since 2014, and after being a mainstay throughout the ’80s and most of the ’90s, USC has made just three March Madness appearances since 2000.

Watkins is the kind of talent that can transform a program — or in USC’s case, restore it to its former glory.

The 6-foot-1 guard has been called a generational talent after leading Sierra Canyon to a state title in her junior season with 24.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per game, among other accomplishments, including playing for the United States U-17 and U-16 national teams.

Watkins is a versatile guard, which along with her obvious talent makes her the ideal player to build a team around. And Gottlieb is already working on finding pieces to surround Watkins. Four-star recruit Malia Samuels, a point guard from Seattle, joins Watkins in the class of 2023.

It’s also worth noting that nine players on the ESPN Top 100 recruiting list for 2024 are from California. And with Watkins staying home to play for the Trojans, she could encourage more players to join her in staying home.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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