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. USC’s star freshman smirked and shook her head as she backpedaled on defense. She wouldn’t be denied.

Watkins sent the Trojans to their first Sweet 16 since 1994, scoring 28 points 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., after Baylor knocked off No. 4 Virginia Tech 75-72 in the second round Sunday.

But Kansas didn’t let the band’s prediction come true easily. The Jayhawks, who stormed back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit in the first round to beat Michigan in overtime, cut USC’s lead to one with 1:20 remaining in the third quarter.

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.

Forward Clarice Akunwafo anchored USC’s defense inside against Kansas star Taiyanna Jackson. While Jackson collected 18 rebounds, the team’s second-leading scorer was held to 10 points on seven-for-19 shooting. Akunwafo, from Rolling Hills Prep, had five points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three steals.

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