USC survives Baylor’s upset bid, advances to Elite Eight with 74-70 victory

Despite a feisty performance from the Bears, the Trojans stepped up in crunch time to advance to their first Elite Eight in 30 years.

USC Women’s Basketball is officially elite.

On Saturday afternoon in Portland, Oregon, the No. 1 seed Trojans defeated No. 5 seed Baylor 74-70. Making their first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years, the moment proved not to be too big for USC, as the Women of Troy made several clutch plays down the stretch to seal the victory.

After the Trojans led 37-31 at halftime, the Bears stormed ahead in the third quarter. USC’s defense, which had been stout all season long, suddenly looked shaky, allowing Baylor to score 26 points in the frame. Heading into the fourth, the Trojans trailed 57-53, and were ten minutes away from seeing their magical season come to an end.

But with their season on the line in the final frame, however, USC returned to its strong defensive roots, holding Baylor to just 13 points over the final ten minutes. On the other side of the ball, superstar freshman guard Juju Watkins came up huge in the clutch, scoring nine of her 30 points in the game’s final 3:13. The result was the Trojans surviving with a 74-70 victory and advancing to their first Elite Eight since 1994.

“We got popped in that third quarter,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of her team’s performance. “And we came back and regrouped and decided we have to be a really good version of us because Baylor’s coming with everything they have. And I thought that was the difference, our response in the fourth quarter.”

“I’m so proud of our team. We’re in the Elite 8. We have an incredible group of young people who just care about winning more than anything else.”

Unlike their first two NCAA Tournament contests, in which the Women of Troy were able to rest their starters for much of the fourth quarter, this game remained in the balance until the very end. It was not until Baylor missed a potential game-tying three-point attempt with eight seconds left and junior center Rayah Marshall’s free throw on the other end made it a two-score game that USC could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Once again, it was Watkins leading the way for the Trojans. In addition to her 30 points, the freshman phenom added six rebounds, four assists, and four blocks. Marshall had yet another double-double, grabbing 16 rebounds to go along with her 11 points. Senior guard McKenzie Forbes also finished in double figures, adding 14 points of her own.

It really all boils down to the trust that everybody has in me,” Watkins said of her late-game heroics. “Despite me not shooting well tonight, I think that when the game’s on the line, I think my teammates trust in me to attempt a bucket, and luckily we came out on top with that one.”

“Man, we just want to win. And whatever it is I can contribute or try to do for the team, I’m going to do it.”

“She’s a competitor,” added Marshall when asked about her teammate. “I can trust her with my life. Like, when it come down to winning, she going to do what she has to do.”

For Baylor, senior guard Sarah Andrews had 17 points, three assists, and three steals. Junior guard Jada Walker added 15 points, seven assists, and three rebounds, while sophomore guard Darianna Littlepage-Buggs had a double-double of her own, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

“They hit some big shots,” Andrews said of the Trojans. “They got some really talented players.”

With the victory, USC advances to their first Elite Eight in 30 years. The Trojans will play No. 3 seed UConn on Monday night with a spot in the Final Four on the line. Not only will it be a showdown between two of the top players in the country in Watkins and Huskies junior guard Paige Bueckers, but it will also be an opportunity for the Trojans to prove themselves against the premier program in the country over the past two decades.

“So super proud and excited,” Gottlieb said. “And the main thing is we want to keep going with this team. I want to stay with them as long as we possibly can. So we’re excited to be practicing tomorrow and playing on Monday.”

Tipoff between USC and UConn is set for 6:00 PM PDT Monday evening on ESPN.