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JuJu Watkins sets the tone early in USC's tournament win over Kansas

 JuJu Watkins scored Southern California’s first seven points of the game, giving her team a shot of confidence.

The stellar freshman finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, and the top-seeded Trojans led all the way in defeating Kansas 73-55 on Monday night to reach the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Watkins raced over to the student section at Galen Center and high-fived her way down the front row in celebration, wearing the scratch on her face like a badge of honor.

“I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said.

McKenzie Forbes hit a career-high six 3-pointers and scored 20 points for the Trojans (28-5), who will face fifth-seeded Baylor (26-7) in the Portland Region 3 in Oregon on Saturday.

USC last went this deep when it reached the Elite Eight in 1994, 10 years after the school won the second of its back-to-back national championships. The Trojans beat 16th-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first round.

“It’s just been really fun to see this place come back to life,” said Forbes, a graduate transfer from Harvard. “We didn’t want to leave the court. They had that place jumping.”

Freshman S’Mya Nichols scored 22 points for the Jayhawks (20-13). Taiyanna Jackson had 10 points and 18 rebounds. Kansas fell to 0-6 all-time when facing a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

After Kansas got within one in the third, the Trojans took over with a 17-2 run that carried over into the fourth. Watkins had nine points and Kayla Padilla hit a 3-pointer that extended USC’s lead to 64-48.

Clarice Akunwafo, who at 6-foot-6 equaled Jackson’s height, disrupted the Kansas center with a career-high six blocks among USC’s 10 in the game and even did a little scoring down the stretch.

“Their physicality not only wore down Taiyanna, but wore down our team a little bit,” Jayhawks coach Brandon Schneider said. “Even when we could get to the rim it was hard to finish.”

The Jayhawks outscored USC 22-20 in the third, scoring nine in a row to close to 47-46. Watkins closed the quarter by hitting a 3-pointer and making a pair of free throws before picking up her third foul. Forbes stole the ball and Akunwafo got fouled, making 1 of 2 to keep the Trojans ahead 53-46.

Kansas rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to force overtime against Michigan in the first round but was completely taken out of it in the fourth by the Trojans.

Watkins got off to a sizzling start with the crowd chanting “USC! USC!” The Trojans ran off 12 straight points over the end of the first and start of the second quarter, capped by Watkins’ 3-pointer that extended USC’s lead to 24-9.

“Ju was spectacular,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “They had to change and go to zone because of her attacking early on.”

The Trojans forced 12 Kansas turnovers that led to 16 points for them in the first half, which ended with USC ahead 33-24. The Jayhawks made just one 3-pointer in the half. They started the game shooting 3 of 14 from the floor.

“The difference in the game was points off turnovers,” Schneider said. “Uncharacteristically, we turned the ball over quite a bit in the first 15 minutes of the game.”

Among the USC supporters were Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller, former NBA player John Wall, former USC quarterback Matt Leinert and football coach Lincoln Riley.

Source: NBC Los Angeles

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