JuJu Watkins scores 30, powers Southern California past Baylor 74-70 for spot in Elite Eight

Southern California guard JuJu Watkins (12) yells to teammates as Baylor guard Bella Fontleroy (22) looks on during the second half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Portland, Ore. Southern California won 74-70. (AP Photo/Howard Lao)

Southern California guard JuJu Watkins (12) yells to teammates as Baylor guard Bella Fontleroy (22) looks on during the second half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Portland, Ore. Southern California won 74-70. (AP Photo/Howard Lao)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With the Elite Eight at stake and Southern California tied 64-all against Baylor with under four minutes left, Trojans All-America freshman JuJu Watkins shook off her shooting woes and took over.

“It was just a matter of turning the game around,” Watkins said. “And I knew I had to do something.”

Watkins drove the length of the floor for a go-ahead three-point play with 3:13 left and finished with 30 points, leading top-seeded USC past Baylor 74-70 on Saturday and into the Elite Eight of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.

Watkins scored nine straight points for the Trojans in the closing minutes and powered a decisive 8-0 run. McKenzie Forbes added 14 points and Rayah Marshall had 11 points and 16 rebounds for USC (29-5), which will face either third-seeded UConn or seventh-seeded Duke on Monday in the Portland 3 Region final for a spot in the Final Four.

“It really boils down to the trust that everybody has in me,” Watkins said. “Despite me not shooting well tonight, I think that when the game is on the line, I think my teammates trust me to go get a bucket. Luckily we came out on top of that one.”

Sarah Andrews scored 17 points for Baylor (26-8), which was making its 20th straight March Madness appearance and was vying for its first Elite Eight spot since 2021, Kim Mulkey’s final season as coach of the Bears.

USC won national titles in 1983 and ‘84, but the Trojans’ deepest run in the tournament since was a regional final loss in 1994 under coach Cheryl Miller to Louisiana Tech.

Watkins surpassed Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell (873 points in 2014-15) for second on the all-time freshman scoring list. The 18-year-old Los Angeles native has 891 points, seven shy of the record set by San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson in 1984.

Watkins — the nation’s second-leading scorer behind Iowa’s Caitlin Clark — missed 20 shots from the field, going 8 of 28 overall and 2 of 11 from 3-point range, but went 12 of 13 from the free-throw line.

“It’s still developing,” Watkins said about her game. “Even though I had 30, it wasn’t my best night. Obviously (I’m) just doing whatever it is to win. That’s (the) priority always. Whether it’s defensively making the right plays, getting off the pick, just doing whatever I need to do.”

The Trojans led by 11 points in the opening half, but Baylor closed the gap in the third quarter and moved in front 50-49 on Andrews’ 3-pointer.

Jada Walker hit consecutive baskets to give the Bears a 57-53 lead going into the fourth. USC quickly regained the lead, 59-57, on Forbes’ 3-pointer with 9:08 left.

Jada Walker’s jumper gave Baylor a 62-59 lead with 4:51 to go. Watkins’ fast-break layup and subsequent free throw put the Trojans ahead to stay, 67-64.

Andrews made two 3s in the final minutes, banking one in with 23 seconds to go, but the Bears got no closer, thanks in part to Watkins’ free-throw shooting.

“They didn’t want to give us five more minutes, because it might have been a different outcome,” Andrews said. “We gave it all we got. They hit some big shots and we were just playing in the moment. We’re not going down without a fight.”

It was Watkins’ 14th game this season with 30 or more points. She had 28 points and 11 rebounds in a 73-55 victory over Kansas to reach the Sweet 16.

Watkins has already set USC’s single-season scoring record — for men or women.

The Bears used physicality to counter USC’s size advantage and jumped to an early 7-2 lead. The Trojans, led by Watkins with eight points, had an 18-16 lead after the opening quarter.

USC stretched the lead to 24-19, but Edwards responded with a 3-pointer. The Trojans pulled ahead 35-24 late in the second period and led 37-31 at the half.

“I thought we made some mistakes and there’s always going to be slippage in a game this big,” Baylor coach Nicki Collen said. “They got a heavy dose of Baylor basketball in the second half.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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