For a few minutes after their home opener tipped Friday night, No. 21 USC didn’t look like the team that had toppled No. 7 Ohio State in their first game of the season four days earlier.
They missed shot after shot, and committed two turnovers, while FGCU ran out to a 9-0 lead. Finally at the 5:25 mark, Trojan coach Lindsay Gottlieb called a timeout. She had waited, to see how her team would handle the pressure. But once they were standing before her, the message was simple.
“We just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to pick it up here.’ We’ve got to communicate, and (practice) the principles that we’ve worked on,” Gottlieb said. “You know what the pace is, and how urgent every possession is. And I thought they established themselves after that.”
USC came out of the timeout and ran up 8 unanswered points, after forward Rayah Marshall broke the seal off of the basket with a layup. Three of the other starters got involved, and put the hosts up 14-11 at the end of the period.
Using stingy defense, the Trojans limited the Eagles to 8 points in the next quarter, en route to a 33-19 advantage at the break. Marshall and freshman sensation JuJu Watkins, who each finished with 18 points, scored 7 and 8 point, respectively, in the third period, as USC shot 58.8 percent. The advantage allowed Gottlieb to insert every bench player in the final frame, as her team won easily, 67-51.
Marshall said the team naturally pulled together after the shaky start.
“Coming in after the first half, we know we need to lock in offensively and figure it out on the court,” she said. “We are at home and we didn’t want to lose. It was a connection, and chemistry and trust. We just felt each other.”
Taylor Bigby had 9 off the bench for the Trojans, while Kayla Padilla added 8 and Kaitlyn Davis, 4 points. Watkins had 10 rebounds to go with her point total.
Maddie Antenucci lead FGCU with 19 points. Coach Karl Smesko credited the USC defense for its disruption.
“We weren’t really playing our game, and we couldn’t get back to it,” he said.
For the Trojans, the game was a triumph, and a celebration of many things. First, with the arrival of No. 1-ranked Watkins, they began the season ranked in the AP top 25 poll for the first time in a decade. In the win over the Buckeyes, Watkins scored 32 points – two more than program great Lisa Leslie did in her freshman debut. With her points from the second win, Watkins has put up 50 points in her first two games, which has only been done by USC legend Cheryl Miller in 1982.
With a raucous crowd of 4,712 on hand for their showdown with the Eagles, the Trojans saw the largest attendance for a game since Jan. 17, 2010. And with the reception for Watkins, in particular, that record may be broken again soon. After the game, the Los Angeles-area star was greeted by hundreds of screaming fans – many of both sexes wearing her jersey – as she stopped to wave and sign autographs.
Gottlieb spoke to the crowd before the team left the court, asking them to come back.
“This is what it should be like. This is what these women deserve,” she said.
For all of her boldness on court, Watkins was understated when asked, post-game, about fan reaction to her.
“Oh yeah, that was insane. I did not expect that,” she said. “That was crazy.”
The third high point for USC was the return of Aaliyah Gayles to the court. The redshirt freshman was shot multiple times at a party in her hometown 19 months ago, just before she was set to go to college. She entered last night’s game with two minutes to go, to a standing ovation. Afterwards, Gayles said she had been “shaking in her boots” before going in, but soon relaxed.
“It was a pleasure,” she said. “I had been taking little steps…..and this was exciting. I was very happy. I don’t care what time it was on the clock.”
The signature point on the night was the honoring of the 1983 and 1984 National Championship teams, complete with a banner raising at halftime. Players, including Miller, and coaches of the teams were on hand for the celebration.
Marshall said their presence meant the world to her and her teammates.
“It was like a dream,” she said. “We had the honor of hearing from some of those players before the game, and they gave us that motivation, and a little insight. The experience is something I will forever cherish and remember.”
Sitting courtside was WNBA all-star Candace Parker and her two children, as well as philanthropist Vanessa Bryant and two of her children. Rapper 2 Chainz was also in attendance.
The Trojans take on Le Moyne Monday before heading to the Baha Mar Pink Flamingo Championship in the Bahamas the following weekend.