Chatsworth Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins wore shiny Lime Kobe Grinches that made it easy for Honda Center fans to identify America’s top girl basketball player and wasn’t interested in individual attention on Saturday night.
Watkins has won gold medals and Most Valuable Player awards representing Team USA in Hungary and Mexico. She won a state title. She was even in one Nike advertising with LeBron James. And yet the only achievement missing from her resume is an Open Division title.
“This is the best. This is what you do with your team,” said Watkins after scoring 24 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and contributing six blocks as Sierra Canyon defeated Etiwanda 70-57 to improve to 30-0 and the to win the Southern Section Open Division title.
“The win means everything,” said Watkins.
It wasn’t Watkins’ best game. She only made four of 16 shots. She also converted 16 of 18 free throws to keep Eiwanda (29-3) catching up.
It was a physical game, with players from both teams often hitting the ground and fouls being called. At one point, the two teams combined to make 31 consecutive free throws. Sierra Canyon made 29 of 32 free throws. Etiwanda made 15 from 17.
“That shows the mental toughness,” said Etiwanda coach Stan Delus.
One reason Sierra Canyon is undefeated and arguably the No. 1 team in America is that the Trailblazers don’t rely on Watkins alone.
Izela Arenas, the daughter of former NBA guard Gilbert Arenas, scored 19 points and contributed early points as Watkins was scoreless for the first six minutes of the game.
Mackenly Randolph, the daughter of former NBA forward Zach Randolph, scored 17 points and had 11 rebounds.
Randolph and Arenas each made huge threes in the fourth quarter as Etiwanda staged a comeback to cut a 17-point deficit to seven. The fathers cheered from the court seats.
“It was physical,” Randolph said. “They played hard and we played hard. Free throws are important. Free throws win games.”
The championship was especially rewarding for Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki, who was 0-2 in the Open Division final. She had spent the entire season preparing her team for Etiwanda after losing to the Eagles in the Open Division final last year when Watkins fouled. Sierra Canyon planned tough road races and was ready for Etiwanda’s physicality.
“We are a very different team than a year ago,” said Komaki.
Sierra Canyon decided to post its 5-foot-4 starting point guard and insert 6-4 freshman Emilia Krstevski to cause Etiwanda trouble. Sierra Canyon defeated the Eagles 30-28. Majesty Cade and Aliyahna Morris finished with 13 points each for Etiwanda.
“I thought our girls played hard for 32 minutes,” said Delus. “We let them get out too many assets in transitions. I thought we were fighting. We didn’t take advantage of our layups. Their height bothered us.”
As for dealing with USC-bound Watkins, Delus said, “It’s so hard. We tried to force her to the side and take down the lanes. She has a very good dribbling movement. She doesn’t hurry until it’s time to attack. We tried to press charges as much as possible. She’s such a difficult guard.”
Sierra Canyon and Etiwanda could meet again when the Southern California Regional Open Division playoffs begin this week, with the regional champion advancing to the state championship on March 11 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Links come out Sunday afternoon.