USC rides scoring, emotional wave into the second round with big win

JuJu Watkins faces the Islander defense. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo

Though few on the USC roster had NCAA Tournament experience going into Saturday’s round 1 matchup, they handled themselves like pros, running to an 87-55 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

JuJu Watkins, who averages 27 points per game for the Trojans, got off to a slow start, but finished with 23 on the day. McKenzie Forbes had 23 points and Rayah Marshall put up 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in pacing the team to the second round for the first time since 2006.

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb had high praise for her squad.

“I thought (JuJu) had a terrific debut here, made all the right decisions,” she said. “Kenzie is playing as well as virtually any guard in the country in terms of leadership, and knocking down shots.”

But despite their offensive firepower, USC’s defense also stood out, as they recorded 14 blocks – 10 of which were delivered in the first period. The Islanders trailed 36-20 at halftime and 71-41 going into the final quarter. Mireia Aguado had 15 points and Alecia Westbrook added 12 for TAMUCC.

McKenzie Forbes runs the ball into the paint. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo

Since winning the Pac-12 Tournament title two weeks prior, the Trojans have been practicing. Forbes said the team was “itching to play” before their tournament debut. Watkins said the extra time helped them.

“I have a lot of confidence in this team. It’s a lot on the line,” Watkins said. “At the end of the day I have trust that my teammates and I are going to get the job done, because we put in so much work.”

Though they had a size disadvantage with USC, the Islanders said they wanted to put forth their best effort.

“We wanted to fight till the end,” coach Royce Chadwick said. “We wanted to make sure our fans were proud of the effort that we gave. I thought they fought. I thought we gave everything we had all night long. We weren’t the biggest team on the floor, but I thought we played with big heart.”

“It didn’t work out, but I was very proud of the effort and heart and desire our team played with.”

Aside from the win, the biggest moments of the afternoon also belonged to fifth-year senior reserve guard India Otto, whom Gottlieb has defined as a team culture-builder, though she sees little game time.

Tammates embrace India Otto after her two three-point shots in the fourth quarter. Jerry Kelly/TGSportstv1 photo

Coming into the matchup’s last few minutes, Otto hit a long three-pointer from the right side, which elicited an emotional reaction from her teammates on the bench, as well as a loud crowd reaction. A few seconds later, she hit another long shot, to the same screams.

Afterward, Otto described her thoughts.

“I think honestly, words fall short to describe what the feeling meant to me,” she said. “I literally got goosebumps after I hit that three. Coming down, to hear the crowd…”

The Trojans face Kansas Monday night, for a trip to the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks needed an overtime Saturday to put away Michigan, 81-72.