JuJu Watkins' strong close vs. Baylor puts USC into Elite Eight

March 30, 2024, 10:19 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the intensity rose in the Moda Center on Saturday with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line, the youngest player on the court stayed calm.

As she has been throughout her record-setting freshman season, USC's JuJu Watkins was cool and collected in scoring nine of the Trojans' last 10 points to lead a 74-70 comeback win over the upset-minded Baylor Bears.

"You can just measure someone's kind of pulse, she just is even-keeled, and it's really cool, the way that she plays," USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "She cares. She's a winner. Nobody's going to rattle her. Not officials, not another team. Not teammates. It's something to see, and I think it's what makes her a great one and is going to make her one of the greatest ones."

Although Watkins had 21 points midway through the fourth quarter, she hadn't scored in more than 12 minutes of game time as Baylor -- fresh off upsetting host Virginia Tech to reach the Sweet 16 -- opened up a 64-61 lead with 4:19 remaining.

The Bears had done what coach Nicki Collen called a "great job" defending Watkins, who finished 8-of-28 from the field -- tied for her third-most missed shots in a game at USC. Yet her teammates never doubted that Watkins would come through with their season on the line.

"JuJu's a winner and we see the work she puts in," said senior guard McKenzie Forbes, the team's second-leading scorer with 14 points. "We don't lack confidence. We have all the trust in the world."

"She's a competitor," said center Rayah Marshall, who had a double-double with 11 points and 16 rebounds. "I can trust her with my life. Like, when it come down to winning, she going to do what she has to do."

What she had to do was manufacture points. With the game tied at 64, Watkins drove against two defenders in transition and finished a three-point play. She made two more free throws with 1:49 remaining to push USC's lead to five, then knocked down all four foul shots in the final 30 seconds to maintain the advantage.

"Not the best shooting night for me, so I had to make sure I capitalized off of easy and free buckets, honestly," Watkins said, downplaying the achievement. "I always practice free throws. We practice in practice. So it's really nothing new."

When Marshall followed Watkins to the free throw line with eight-plus seconds remaining and a three-point lead, she tried to channel her teammate's calm presence.

"I remember just watching JuJu at the line all game," Marshall said. "I was praying, 'God, please let her make this, please let her make this.' You know what? Now it's my turn. Let me call in my inner JuJu, knock down this first free throw, and after that I just kind of rejoiced."

Marshall's free throw gave the Trojans their final four-point margin, allowing them to survive a pair of 3-pointers in the final 1:38 by Baylor's Sarah Andrews, who scored 17 points and knocked down five 3-pointers. USC advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994.

Despite the off night from the field, Watkins' 30 points were the second most for a Trojans player in the NCAA tournament, trailing only the 31 scored by Paula McGee in 1982 en route to the Trojans' first Elite Eight.

Additionally, Watkins passed Kelsey Mitchell at Ohio State (873 in 2014-15) for the second-most points in a freshman season in NCAA Division I history. She trails Tina Hutchinson's record total for San Diego State in 1983-84 (898) by seven points heading into Monday's Region 3 final in Portland.

With four assists and four blocks -- one shy of her career high -- Watkins joined Brittney Griner for Baylor (in both 2011 and 2013) as just the second player to hit both marks and score 30 points in an NCAA tournament game in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Watkins has made such performances look routine for an 18-year-old.

"It's unbelievable what she handles," Gottlieb said. "You cannot put one person on her. She will score. You can't really put two. You have to show a lot of bodies. And again, for her to end up with 30 and 4 assists on not her best shooting night, I do think she's feeling the floor incredibly well."