USC survives with 65-62 win over Arizona in Pac-12 quarters

Pac-12 Conference
Arizona gave Juju Watkins and USC all they could handle on Thursday night, but the Women of Troy prevailed in the end.

LAS VEGAS — If USC’s win in the Pac-12 quarterfinals on Thursday night was anything, it was gutsy.

For the third time in a month’s span, the Women of Troy knocked off an Arizona team that has proven to be a thorn in their side this season. This time, it was a 65-62 victory with USC vying to become the final Pac-12 women’s basketball champion and Arizona seeking to get their NCAA tournament resume up to par for next weekend’s field selection.

“I think our team continues to impress me with finding ways to win,” USC coach Lindsey Gottlieb said. “I think we’re at our best when we get contributions everywhere and I thought we ended up being toughest when toughness was needed.”

“I’m going to say up here, and it’s not just Pac-12 speak, Arizona is a tournament team. They are. They’re playing really well at the end. The gauntlet of teams you face in the Pac-12 has made them better and has made them worthy of a bid.”

Thursday was USC’s third win over Arizona within the last month, but it was their second tight battle in just seven days after USC survived a double overtime thriller in Tucson on Feb. 29.

“Like Coach G said, they’re a really good team, a tournament team, and they compete,” said Rayah Marshall. “Their defense, their pressure, we felt it the entire game. I just remember being at their house and they were up 10, I think it was like five minutes left in the game, and they never stopped competing even when we came back and took that game to overtime”

USC got out to a 13-0 run to start the game and ended the first quarter with a 20-9 lead, but were actually outscored by Arizona in each of the remaining three quarters in a game that turned into a rock fight for Lindsey Gottlieb and her USC Trojans.

Still, they survived and advanced and will meet UCLA in the Pac-12 semifinals tomorrow night. For Arizona, they’re now hoping that the NCAA Tournament selection committee believes the Pac-12 was a strong enough conference this season to earn seven or eight bids.

“The first five minutes we got punched, and that was the difference in the game, because that’s one of the reasons we lost. We won the other three quarters,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “We had chances to win, just like we did last time against them. We just came up too short.”

Advocating for her team’s tourney resume, Barnes continued:

“I think we just showed everybody. I think we showed the country. We started three freshmen, and the way we played, how we battled, the position we’ve been in against all of these top teams. I mean, they’re number five in the country (and have) best freshman in the country, and we battled. We had chances to win the game and this is their first time there.

“So I think that there’s no doubt, and every single time it’s against (any) of these teams, they say it. So I just think there’s no doubt we’re in the tournament. I think we’ve proven that.”

USC shot 8-10 in that first quarter, with JuJu Watkins pouring in 10 on a perfect 4-4 from the field. Things slowed down considerably for the Trojans in the second quarter, going just 3-11 from the field while only managing to score 10 points. USC didn’t shoot over 50% for any of the final three quarters after shooting 80% in the first quarter.

In fact, after Watkins’ torrid first quarter, Arizona actually held her to just one field goal for the remainder of the game. Arizona played her incredibly tough and frankly battered her at times in the game with a defensive strategy that mirrored something like the Jordan rules.

Like a superstar should, however, Watkins still found ways to make it happen. Even with her field goal drought lasting nearly the entirety of the final three quarters, she still led all players on the court in plus/minus.

“I look at the stat sheet and I know she would look at it and think it’s not her cleanest and not her best, but she still has our highest plus/minus,” Gottlieb said. “She’s a winning player who cares about winning and takes a lot on her shoulders. The poise that she operates with helps our team, the competitiveness helps our team. The way she interacts with her teammates (helps our team).”

In the midst of Watkins’ struggles, Rayah Marshall established her presence on defense and in the post and was the engine alongside JuJu in the win. Marshall tallied 15 points and 15 rebounds while also collecting 3 blocks to go along with Juju’s 17 points and eight rebounds.

“I think when Rayah’s down there handling her business like she has been, it just makes it so much easier for everyone else, especially the guards,” said USC’s Mackenzie Forbes. “It just gives us that confidence. Like, when she’s hooping, I know that we can beat anyone.”

USC tip off against UCLA in the second semifinal at MGM Grand on Friday night some time around 7:30 p.m.