USC women return to Elite Eight for first time in 30 years by beating Baylor


As USC lined up for the opening tip of its Sweet 16 matchup against Baylor, a fan sitting two rows up from the court at Moda Center held up a plain white sign reading in black marker, “JUJU N ’EM.” JuJu Watkins cracked a grin at the sight.

Yes, the freshman led the way with 30 points, six rebounds, four blocks and four assists, but her teammates weren’t just supporting players in USC’s 74-70 win over No. 5 seed Baylor in the Portland 3 regional semifinal on Saturday.

McKenzie Forbes scored 14 points. Rayah Marshall had an 11-point, 16-rebound double-double. Kayla Williams added a clutch defensive lift off the bench and the top-seeded Trojans advanced to their first Elite Eight since 1994.

Needing one more win to reach its first Final Four since 1986, USC (29-5) will face No. 3 seed Connecticut on Monday at 6 p.m. PDT (ESPN) at Moda Center after the Huskies knocked off No. 7 Duke 53-45 on Saturday.

Watkins was just eight-for-28 from the field and two-of-11 from three-point range, but she, as has been the case all year for the resurgent Trojans, made her shots when it mattered. Using stops from Williams, who kept Baylor’s Jada Walker scoreless for the final 4:19 after the Kentucky transfer put the Bears up by three, Watkins led USC on an 8-0 run. She scored or assisted on seven of the points, including a fearless and-one that gave the Trojans a three-point lead with 3:13 remaining.

“She’s a winner,” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “Nobody’s going to rattle her. Not officials, not another team, not teammates. … I think it’s what makes her a great one and is going to make her one of the greatest ones.”

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Watkins was a perfect seven-of-seven from the free throw line in the fourth quarter. Her unbothered demeanor even inspired Marshall when the junior forward toed the line needing at least one free throw to give the Trojans a two-possession game with eight seconds remaining. Marshall said she wanted to “call my inner JuJu” while she swished the free throw.

“I can trust her with my life,” Marshall said.

The dynamic freshman teamed with the savvy veteran Forbes, who scored nine points in the first half to help the Trojans to a six-point lead despite picking up two fouls in the second quarter. When the graduate transfer went to the bench at the end of the third quarter with her third foul, Baylor went on a 6-0 run.

The Harvard transfer didn’t waste any time making her presence felt in the fourth, blocking Bella Fontleroy’s shot on Baylor’s first possession. She whipped her fist through the air when Kayla Padilla scored an and-one layup. Forbes forced the Bears to call a timeout when she knocked down a three-pointer that put the Trojans up by two.

Walking to the USC huddle, Forbes locked eyes with her family in the crowd sitting behind USC’s bench and shouted “Let’s f— go!”

USC guards JuJu Watkins (12) and Kayla Padilla (45) block a shot by Baylor guard Sarah Andrews.

USC guards JuJu Watkins (12) and Kayla Padilla (45) block a shot by Baylor guard Sarah Andrews during the second half Saturday.

(Steve Dykes / Associated Press)

“She’s the ultimate leader,” said Padilla, who had eight points and four rebounds. “She knows how to get the crowd going and we just feed off her energy. She’s someone we look to see what our emotions should be and she’s one to hold us accountable but also to celebrate us.”

Forbes is sometimes the butt of lighthearted jokes from the 18-year-old Watkins, who said Friday that the 23-year-old Forbes’ knees were too sore to get into the back of the van to the arena, but Watkins thanked Forbes for providing critical leadership during her freshman season.

“She’s like Yoda,” Watkins said, chuckling. “No, she’s just super smart. I think we have a special relationship, that rookie-vet vibe.”

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After Watkins dribbled the clock out, she shared her first high-fives with Forbes, who wrapped her teammate in a tight hug. Watkins walked through the handshake line and stopped at midcourt, looked toward the crowd and held her arms out wide with a relieved grin on her face. As she walked to the tunnel, USC’s first All-American since 1997 stopped to sign autographs. When she grabbed a marker and scribbled her signature on a white T-shirt and hat, a girl standing in the front row burst into tears.

“Oh my God!” the girl shouted. “Thank you so much!”

USC athletic director Jennifer Cohen told Gottlieb it was “like a Taylor Swift moment.”

“No,” Gottlieb said, “it’s a JuJu moment.”



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