JuJu Watkins breaks another record, powering USC to victory in NCAA tournament opener



JuJu Watkins said she didn’t know what to expect during her first NCAA tournament game. But USC knows exactly what to expect from its star freshman.

Watkins finished with 23 points, five rebounds and four blocks in an 87-55 rout of 16th-seeded Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday at Galen Center. In her NCAA tournament debut, Watkins broke Cheryl Miller’s USC single-season scoring record the Hall of Famer set in 1986. With 833 total points, Watkins now ranks third in NCAA history for scoring by a freshman, trailing Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell (873 points) and San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson (898).

After their first NCAA tournament win since three months before Watkins’ first birthday, the Trojans will face No. 8-seed Kansas in the second round of the Portland 3 Region on Monday at Galen Center. The Jayhawks (20-12) came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against Michigan to win 81-72 in overtime Friday.

USC (27-5) overwhelmed the Islanders with 21 unanswered points in the first quarter, a run broken only by a last-gasp shot by Corpus Christi star forward Alecia Westbrook in transition at the buzzer. USC junior Rayah Marshall clapped her hands in frustration after allowing the circus layup even though the Trojans were still up 21-4.

One blowout win over the Southland Conference champions will not satisfy the top-seeded Trojans. The Pac-12 champions have their first No. 1 seed since 1986 and nearly filled Galen Center on a Saturday afternoon with expectations for a long tournament run for a program returning to the national stage for the first time in decades.

Guard McKenzie Forbes, who tied Watkins with a team-high 23 points Saturday, was the only player on the roster who had won an NCAA tournament game before, advancing to the second round as a freshman with Cal in 2019. The Trojans, who are in back-to-back tournaments for the first time since 2006, lost their opening-round game last year.

After practice Tuesday, coach Lindsay Gottlieb prepped her team on the intricacies of an NCAA tournament schedule. To have the comforts of home but without the distractions, Gottlieb opted to have the team stay in a hotel. She mentioned the NCAA-mandated open locker room media availability. Some players rolled their eyes or chuckled.

The spectacle of the NCAA tournament took over Galen Center for the first time since 2009. All week behind the scenes, arena staff were decorating Galen Center with March Madness stickers on the front doors and hanging banners up on the railings. The Trojans couldn’t ignore the big stage.

“This team plays best when the stakes are high,” Gottlieb said this week. “I think it’s a matter of appreciating that we’re not flying today, across the country, appreciating that we love Galen and we’re going to have our home crowd here, but also making sure that it doesn’t feel like just an ordinary game. Because it’s not. It’s a postseason weekend.”

Except for a lackluster stretch in the second quarter when the Islanders cut USC’s lead to nine, the Trojans looked like a team ready to soak up the limelight. Watkins danced with defenders in a dizzying array of dribbles and crossovers. Kayla Padilla, who finished with 10 points, hit a corner three-pointer while falling out of bounds late in the shot clock in the third quarter and chuckled as she ran back up the court. When Forbes hit a quick three-pointer in transition on the next possession, forcing a timeout from the Islanders, she waved her arm toward the crowd that rose to its feet calling for more.



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top