JuJu Watkins shines as USC advances to Sweet 16 for first time in 30 years

She banked in the final exclamation point and JuJu Watkins could finally relax. The intense glare on her face melted into a joyous grin as she walked off the court at Galen Center for a final time this season. The Watts native waved both of her arms to the crowd that was already on its feet.

Watkins sent the Trojans to their first Sweet 16 since 1994 with 28 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in top-seeded USC’s 73-55 win over No. 8 seed Kansas in the second round of the Portland 3 Region of the NCAA tournament Monday night at Galen Center.

Graduate transfer McKenzie Forbes provided fireworks from three-point range with six among her 20 points. After Forbes knocked down her fifth three to put USC up by 12 with 7:09 to go in the third, the USC band chanted, “We want Baylor! We want Baylor!”

The Trojans will face the fifth-seeded Bears in the regional semifinal in Portland, Ore., on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. PDT (ESPN) after Baylor knocked off No. 4 Virginia Tech 75-72 in the second round.

“I don’t know if there are enough words. I’m elated, I’m overjoyed, I’m proud,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “For this to be the last time that our senior group is playing in this building, I want them to understand how special it was out here. … The fans showed up and showed out.”

The top-seeded Trojans hosted and played in NCAA tournament games for the first time since 1994. On Monday, the crowd featured NBA star John Wall and former USC quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Caleb Williams. Fans took note of the Trojans skyrocketing back to national prominence as attendance more than tripled during the regular season. Prominent alumni including Cheryl Miller and Tina Thompson often sat courtside to see the revolution for themselves. With the freshman Watkins just starting her career, things don’t appear to be slowing down soon.

“When I’m done playing, when [Forbes is] done playing, we want it to still be a winning culture,” Watkins said. “When we come back like how Cheryl has done and Tina, just some legends that have come back just to cheer us on, we hope to do that in the future as well.”

Kansas (20-13) had the USC crowd squirming in the third quarter after cutting USC’s 12-point lead to one with 1:20 remaining. The Jayhawks already showed their moxy by overcoming a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit in the first round against Michigan.

With a bright red scratch on her right cheek, Watkins calmly responded. The freshman scored five points in USC’s 6-0 run to end the third quarter. Guard Kayla Padilla extended the run by knocking down a three on USC’s first possession of the fourth quarter and then Watkins provided the knockout punch by shoveling a no-look pass to Kaitlyn Davis for a layup with 6:12 remaining to put the Trojans up by 14.

The typically stoic 18-year-old waved both arms toward the crowd. Of course, the fans responded by showering the team in applause.

USC had more than 8,000 fans at each of its NCAA tournament games. Gottlieb remembered when a potential recruit sat in her office during her first year and said opposing coaches were using USC’s low attendance as a way to recruit against the Trojans.

Why should a recruit go to USC if no one shows up to watch, a parent wondered.

“It’s going to take us a little bit, but we’re going to get fans in here,” Gottlieb said of her response. “Then what are they going to say?”

Monday’s crowd of 8,941 made it so loud that junior forward Rayah Marshall said she struggled to hear Gottlieb’s play calls. When the final horn sounded, fellow junior Clarice Akunwafo let roaring cheers wash over her. The forward from Inglewood, who anchored USC’s defense with a career-high six blocks, nine rebounds and three steals, looked to the top rows where there used to be empty seats. She saw people clapping and cheering.

“I was like, ‘Rayah, look, we filled out this place all the way to the top,” Akunwafo said. “It was surreal, especially from freshman year to now, the growth is crazy.”

USC acknowledged its fans after the game, breaking the huddle and waving toward the crowd. Players ran into the student section and circled the front row for high-fives. Before jetting to the students that had painted their chests, Watkins raised her hands in a prayer. She held up two victory signs.

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