USC advances to Sweet 16 after victory over Kansas, 73-55

Sujey Luna - The Sporting Tribune
After USC's' big 73-55 victory over Kansas, the Trojans are headed back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994 with Lisa Leslie.

LOS ANGELES — For the first time in 30 years, USC Women’s Basketball is headed to the Sweet 16.

On Monday night night, No. 1 seed USC defeated No. 8 seed Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Playing in front of a packed home crowd at Galen Center for the final time this season, the Trojans started out strong and held off second half surge by the Jayhawks to come away with a 73-55 victory.

USC led 17-9 after the first quarter and 33-24 at halftime. However, Kansas came back in the second half, cutting the deficit to one late in the third quarter. But the Trojans came up big down the stretch, going on a 24-5 run to put the game away. Star freshman guard Juju Watkins’s three-pointer to put her team up 71-52 with 2:12 remaining proved to be the dagger.

Watkins led the way for USC with 28 points. She also added 11 rebounds, five assists, and three steals for her eighth double-double of the season.

“If there’s a better freshman season in the history of college basketball, I’d like to hear about it,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of Watkins. “We can analyze the stats and this or that, and her stats are great, but in terms of the ability to raise up a program and do it selflessly and do it with the magnetism, it doesn’t work if you have a star that people don’t want to play with.”

Senior guard McKenzie Forbes added 20 points of her own. Junior center Clarice Akunwafo also contributed nine rebounds and a career-high six blocks off the bench.

“Clarice is something else,” Gottlieb said of Akunwafo. “A lot of gratitude for how she stays ready no matter what. A night like tonight showcases what she’s really good at, which is defensively she’s so strong and patrols that paint.”

For Kansas, freshman guard S’Mya Nichols led the charge with 22 points. Senior center Taiyanna Jackson did a bit of everything in the loss, contributing ten points, 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocks.

With an exciting game on the court, the crowd was on its feet and loud throughout the entire night, something that wasn’t lost on Gottlieb and the players.

“The fans showed up and showed out,” Gottlieb said. “It was electric both games and I just—it means so much.”

“We didn’t want to leave court,” Forbes added. “I wanted to go around and make sure the fans know we appreciate them so much. They had that place jumping and it’s so much fun to play with a crowd like that. Just super grateful.”

With the victory, USC now moves on to the Sweet 16 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon next weekend. The Trojans will face No. 5 seed Baylor, with No. 3 seed UConn and No. 7 seed Duke squaring off afterwards.

“Getting to the Sweet 16 is hard and this team earned that,” Gottlieb said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

“We need you all in Portland,” Forbes said. “A lot of these other schools have those long-standing fan bases that travel well. So if you can, we need you guys in Portland to come get loud for us because we’re trying to win some more games.”

Tipoff between USC and Baylor is set for 2:30 PM PDT on Saturday on ESPN.